AHMET ZAPPA

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Ahmet Emuukha Rodan Zappa was born in the Hollywood Hills on 15 May 1974. The youngest son of Gail and Frank, his voice can be heard on his father’s album You Are What You Is (1981), and on several with his brother Dweezil, with whom he formed the band “Z” which toured and recorded from 1991 to 1996.
   Ahmet has appeared in a number of feature films – including Pump Up The Volume (1990), Jack Frost (1998) and Ready To Rumble (2000) – and co-hosted the US television cable show Robotica (2001-02). He also ran Kingdom Comics for Disney.
   In 2005, he was to have been part of Zappa Plays Zappa with Dweezil, but its postponement – coupled with publication of his debut children’s novel, The Monstrous Memoirs Of A Mighty McFearless (2006) – saw him leave the project. He later formed Monsterfoot Productions and conceived, developed and produced The Odd Life Of Timothy Green for Walt Disney Pictures (2012). His picture book, Because I’m Your Dad (with illustrations by Dan Santat), was published in 2013 and was a New York Times best seller.
   In July 2015, his mother announced that Ahmet would be taking over the daily operations of the family business. When she passed away three months later, he took control of the Zappa Family Trust (ZFT).
   Ahmet is married to designer, writer and the creator of Disney Star Darlings, Shana Muldoon. They have a daughter (Halo Violetta, born 2010) and son (Arrow D’Oro Leon, born 2016).
   After trying for some time to get Ahmet onto the ZappaCast, ‘Podmeister’ Scott Parker finally succeeded in December 2017, wherein he posed a few questions on my behalf.
   Hot on the heels of this, I separately arranged to speak directly with Ahmet myself. Many thanks to Erin Weiss at Monsterfoot and Michael Mesker and Melanie Starks of the ZFT for their help in facilitating this. I started by asking him to let me know if he felt uncomfortable with any of the questions, to which he said, “It’s impossible to make me uncomfortable. But I will say that I hope I don’t disappoint with the answers, because some of the stuff in terms of history and a lot of specific stuff, it’s still a deep dive for me to try to understand. I’m learning as I’m going.”
   Less than an hour before our interview started, Eyellusion issued a press release about the “The Bizarre World Of Frank Zappa” Hologram Tour – which was the subject of my first question.

I understand the footage you talk about using on the Hologram Tour is from the DiscReet Studio TV Special, taped a month after you were born. What more can you tell me about the footage, and the tour itself – is that all progressing nicely?
Frank shot this particular footage on video with a TV special in mind. But he didn’t use it, and the KCET footage was shot a month later. In the ‘Ten Years On The Road With The Mothers Of Invention’ scrapbook, Frank mentions an “impending TV special.” We think the ‘DiscReet TV Special’ might be a fan created title.[i]
   So yes, right after my birth, Frank shot this show and the thing that’s great about it – what’s useful for us holographically – is there are so many angles that can allow us to volumetrically have a very cool version of Frank. For me, what I was looking for was a certain period in my dad’s life that was different...you know, my brother would play a guitar solo with video of Frank playing in the background on those early Zappa Plays Zappa shows. To be able to do something different here, that was the advantage of doing something holographically, so that there’s more of a shared space on stage, which appears to have more interactivity. But we can also do so much more.
   The purpose of that particular footage – because I didn’t even know it existed – it’s so killer, and we have so much of it: it sounds great, it looks great. I lean towards a rocking 70s look of my dad right now – he just looks cool. It felt like a good place to start.
   To do what we need to do, we need all the different angles – I’m super particular: you’ve got to have the eyebrows, the nose, the hair, all just right.

 

The eyebrows especially.
Certainly! Yes! And his facial expressions, it’s all there.

I must admit I was a little taken aback when I first heard about all this. But then I thought that the chance to potentially see Zappa alumni playing with Frank as we’ve never seen him before...sold! It’s an unbelievable line-up. Can’t wait. But you will of course be aware of the negative reaction to the project.
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, for sure. But the thing I think is hilarious is when people say that Frank wouldn’t have liked something like this. That’s just comical. So I point out that he writes about it in his own book, and I had conversations about holograms with him. But people just want to believe what they want to believe.
   I think there’s a real opportunity here: people have only pushed these kinds of holographic presentations so far. The beauty of Eyellusion and the team there is they can get us to a place that creatively is very different from any hologram show that anyone’s ever put together before.
   What we’re trying to do is very ambitious. We’re trying to incorporate a lot of the Frank Zappa aesthetic, capture that lo-fi/hi-fi handmade feel and bring out all of the creative elements from my father’s imagination that went into not just the music, but certainly the visuals. And we have so much footage that we will be able to do some really cool and interesting things. Basically, if Frank was alive right now, I would like to think he would have utilised this technology.
   From a technical standpoint, any living artist today could have a three-part harmony on a record, and if you creatively thought, “wouldn’t it be cool to have three versions of that person standing on stage?” This is the only way you could do that!
   So it’s interesting technology from a performance standpoint. And when you have all these amazing musicians that played with Frank excited to play, it just feels like the timing is right. And just being way more organised...you know, I love my mom, but once this fell into my lap and I tried to make heads or tails of everything, the first thing I started doing was getting very, very organised and putting all of the material into a content management system so that we can rapidly identify what we have from an audio/visual standpoint.

How does that tie-in with the Alex Winter movie project?
It’s just amazing. We couldn’t have put this system in place at the time of my mother’s passing. There was just so much to figure out, from a financing perspective...what resources does the Trust have? Paying for things, bills, etc. – it was all so chaotic. And the fans really came to the rescue for Frank, and for Alex’s movie. The video assets were really melting – something Joe has to deal with on the audio side, too.

I was intrigued that Gail gave Jenny Brown an honourable mention on FZ:OZ, and that Jen has now penned an essay for The Roxy Performances. What can you tell me about Jen?
You know, I really can’t...I didn’t even speak with her. I’m super appreciative of her involvement, but it was really Joe that suggested her. I was jumping up and down because she wanted to be involved. I thought it was really cool. I look forward to being able to have a cup of tea with her.
   Sorry if the answer is not so exciting!

Tell me of your involvement in writing Frogs With Dirty Little Lips[ii] with Frank.[iii]
That’s a real easy one! There were a few similar moments in my life...Rat Tomago,[iv] Chalk Pie,[v] Frogs With Dirty Little Lips, those were all inspired by experiences I had with my dad.
   With Frogs with Dirty Little Lips, this guy called Muzzy brought me a big red bucket with a few rocks in it and some pond scum, and all these tadpoles – just as they were turning into baby frogs. I was obsessed!
   My dad said, “What have you got there, bubba?” I described how cute these frogs with dirty little lips were, because they had these big smiles. And I was going on and on about how cute they were.
   My fondest memories of Frank are when I could get him to laugh or chortle. So Frogs With Dirty Little Lips happened because this construction worker up at the house brought me a bucket full of baby frogs...and then I let them all go in the garden!
   With Chalk Pie, we had a conversation about what was the grossest thing you could imagine, and my answer to Frank was chalk pie. The idea of that in your mouth, just disgusting.
   Rat Tomago was the 4th of July – or maybe it was New Year’s – it was some night where there was going to be fireworks. I was five or six, and there was some construction work where my mother and father’s bedroom was. They were remodelling the house at one point, and where Frank had set up the studio became a temporary bedroom. So it was really exciting to maybe go and crash with your parents in a new place – it was a whole new kick-ass set-up.
   We were all upstairs drawing and I drew these pictures and brought them downstairs to share with my mom and dad. And they asked me what this one picture was. I told them it was a rat tomago, and he fucking laughed so hard that my mother made my father and I matching rat tomago t-shirts, which I have framed and hung on the wall. You can see how tiny Frank was and how huge I was because they basically look like the same size t-shirts.
   Pretty hilarious.

Do you know the origins of any other song titles that the rest of us may not know about – from family jokes or whatever?
I think people know about Valley Girl, with Moon.
   My middle name is Emuukha, and that’s shown up in different places.

Like the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra on Lumpy Gravy.
Yeah. I later found out that it’s a grave women pray on in Israel to get a husband. I don’t know what that says about my name, though!

I didn’t know about Rat Tomago and Chalk Pie, so that was interesting.
Those were just wonderful moments. I like to listen to Joe’s Garage and hear my dad’s laugh before the Watermelon In Easter Hay solo. That is so much of what I remember – of drawing pictures or playing games with him, and getting him to laugh.
   That is why I really do feel blessed, as someone who has lost both parents: it is a blessing to be able to have all this media. I can’t imagine what it would be like for anyone else. We’re in a unique situation that there’s so much of my dad out there, I feel so deeply for other people who have lost their parents that don’t have that.
   It’s always emotional to look back at the video and audio...there’s certainly cringe-worthy moments too – like my dad was really in the worst mood in that video, or what the hell was happening in that piece of audio. But it takes you right back, and you think, ‘Woo, it must have been tough working for that guy!’

Did you know of Doreen Tracey, who passed away recently? She was a Disney Mouseketeer in the 50s, and then was a Promotion Director at Warners who helped break the Yellow Snow single. She supposedly then worked as a publicist for Frank, and it’s been suggested that the song Doreen was written for her. Any clues?
I read that and I do not know the validity...but it’s certainly great to think that that’s the case. What a cool story. I wouldn’t discredit it. It seems to me like it would make sense – and it’s such a good song!

And hopefully Ray will be singing that on the Hologram Tour?
Oh man!
   He, by the way, has been in the studio recording lots of music – he sent me some. It’s fantastic. He was always someone...I mean, Ike and Ray were at the house a lot when I was a kid, so whenever they were there, it was just like...you know [laughs]!
   But Ray’s voice, it’s just insane. The guitar playing – oh, he’s just an amazing performer. I could not be happier. Love him!

Do you have any fond memories of recording vocals for the You Are What You Is album, in what was then the newly constructed UMRK? You were quite young.
I remember every situation where it felt like I was working with Frank. Those were always pretty fun experiences. At that time I think I was...

...about six?
I think I was younger, because I wound up taking the record and playing the b-side – the 45 of I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted, I forget what was on the b-side...

...Ancient Armaments.
Yeah. I took it to my Show And Tell at pre-school. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
   But the experience itself was really fun. I thought that my dad was feeling what I was doing [laughs]. I did a few takes. That was really great because Moon went into the studio afterwards and I was listening to her and she was singing in this affected, character voice. And I thought that was kinda cool...it just felt like I’m doing something with my big sister, and we were all doing something with Frank, and we couldn’t believe it was on the album.
   And there was this really cool synthesizer that Frank wanted each one of us to...he recorded each one of us just jamming away. We must have those tapes somewhere.

Joe will find them.
Yeah. That was following Frank’s tutelage.
   Those were big days – those days were events. The studio was done, and he was working, so he was home more; we had more access. Those are really great memories.

I have a very sad story to relay. In preparing for this interview, I noted that the audio book for your Monstrous Memoirs Of A Mighty McFearless was narrated by one Katherine Kellgren. I wrote to her at the start of the year asking if she was any relation to Gary Kellgren, the engineer on We’re Only In It For The Money – and for any stories regarding recording the audio book. She wrote a very short message back saying she was feeling very ill and couldn’t respond. I then learned that she passed away just a few days later.
Really? Oof! That’s horrible. I should do something for the family.
   But I have no idea if there was a connection – that’s the first I’m hearing about that. That’s bizarre! Everyone says it’s a small world, but that would be strange.

Did the ZFT prevent Dweezil’s Zappanale set from being broadcast live?[vi]
That’s the first time I’ve ever heard such a statement. No. I didn’t even know that that was a thing. My mother had issues with Zappanale that I’m trying to get to the bottom of. It’s like this weird position to be in because I love everyone’s passion about playing Frank’s music. My preference would be – even if it’s Zappanale – that it would be better to do these projects in conjunction with the Trust. I’m of the mindset of let’s figure out how we can do this together, because I can support these kinds of things with so many assets. So that’s really my point of view.
   It’s not about telling people no, it’s about, ‘Hey, I’ve got a good idea, let’s see if we can make it better by combining our incredible thinking; let’s try to understand the scope of things, and how can we make a better fan experience.’ When people are passionate about something I do think there’s a way that you can put projects together that ticks all of the boxes that delivers the best experience. Let’s just make sure it’s done appropriately.
   I think it’s honestly helpful for the Trust to protect Frank’s legacy. We have invested a significant amount of money in being able to protect Frank’s legacy. So when projects come about, it’s literally the easiest thing to do. Make sure you have permission, you’ve labelled everything correctly – that we have used the appropriate marks and all of that. That’s mostly what I get up in arms about. We’ve just got to do it the right way, and then we can figure out all the things around that.
   I don’t want to be a Zappa cop – that takes up a lot of time and resources. If you are passionate about Frank and you want to do a project, it’s really easy – reach out to me – via info@zappa.com – and let’s figure something out.

Do you have any knowledge of Extraordinary Teamwork – something that was announced by Gail and the ZFT around fifteen years ago? The only thing that seems to have come out of it is the Gene Simmons track, Black Tongue.
I remember being in the studio with Gene Simmons, I sang on the track. But...no!

There was a press release. The idea was that artists could take pieces of Frank’s unreleased material and incorporate it into their own compositions. I asked Dweezil the same question, and he had no memory of it either!
Send the press release to me[vii] – that’s a cool name! I think along the same lines as her, I guess. We found that audio of Frank and Eric Clapton just jamming. It’s pretty cool. So there’s stuff like that, who knows? Maybe those things will see the light of day.

Tell me about two bands that you have been involved with – Sleeps 9 and the Idiot Sevilles?[iii]
Sleeps 9 and the Idiot Sevilles were kind of the same...I was trying to go on a naming journey and was never really happy with the names. There were different band members, but since I was in all of those iterations, for the most part it was the same kind of music we were playing.
   I played with some of the people that I’m still very close with to this day.

Are there currently any plans for more Orchestra En Regalia shows?
There should be announcements coming out, hopefully pretty soon – working with CAMI on that show was terrific. I would like nothing more than for orchestras to play more of Frank’s music, and slowly but surely more orchestras are playing his music with more regularity.
   My commitment here is to have more people experience Frank’s orchestral music, and I really want the fans to have more of what they want.

How is Mr. Thunes settling into his new role as ScoreMeister?
There have been really specific things we’ve had him work on. I love spending time with him, and the more time I get to spend with Scott, the happier I feel. He’s hilarious. I mean, because I played in a band with him, and I first met him as a kid...the connection I have with him...he used to live up at the house. To me, he feels like extended family. The same way that Steve Vai feels like extended family

Any plans to release Lucy Lawless’s rendition of Flambay - maybe on a future Birthday Bundle? We haven’t had one of those for a few years.
I do not know the answers to these questions! I haven’t even heard it, I didn’t know it existed.
   Or maybe I do and it slipped my mind.

Okay. Did you ever verify that Frank composed music for David Cronenberg’s The Fly?
Oh yeah, we have that. He made some samples. Stuart Cornfeld[viii] was a good family friend and he would come over and spend a lot of time, so they totally talked about it. I also heard a legend that Frank turned down Star Wars! That made me feel weird as a kid, because I loved Star Wars so much. I was like, ‘Why the fuck would anyone turn that down?’ And there’s some audio of conversations that Frank recorded – I haven’t listened to the tape, but it’s marked in the vault ‘Barbarella’,[ix] I guess that’s him talking about what he would do.

That’s right! Absolutely. I know he had conversations with the director, but it didn’t come to anything.
   What are your memories of the Peace Choir record in 1991 – how did that come about?
With Lenny Kravitz – that thing? I don’t even know how that came about – probably through publicists, or through our working for MTV: they were doing a video.
   My fond memory of that moment was Lenny Kravitz, after we had recorded. He was like, “You can really blow!” Lenny liked how I sang , which for me at that time was such a big deal. It was exciting to work with him. But it was quick: we went into a studio, sang a couple of times, and then they moved someone else in.

Finally, do you know on which Vai tracks you appear on the Sex & Religion[x] album?[iii]
Oh, I can’t remember the name of it. This is super embarrassing. I could Google it... I think I remember singing about a pig.
   But I can tell you that that was a really fun experience, because Steve is so wonderful. My brother idolised him. My father loved him. So I had all these emotions of ...spending so much time with him as a kid. I just wanted to impress him – you know, do a good job. That was a really nerve-wracking experience. And I loved it!
   I had never really listened to Steve’s music other than when he was playing with Frank, so I walked into that recording experience thinking it was gonna be something different. It was pretty awesome – being in his studio, working with him. He was so kind, so generous. It was fun.
   I wanna say it was the song Pig, but I could be totally wrong.

When I asked Steve many years ago, he didn’t seem sure. But he did mention another track called Manic Panic that didn’t make it onto the record. He also added that, “the best stuff I got of Ahmet is where he’s standing in the studio just talking. He’s possessed, that guy. He’s really funny – totally out there.”
[laughs] I hope he still feels that way! We do kind of crack up on texts back and forth, you know?
   He was such a good friend of my mother, and he’s been a real guardian angel for everyone in the family. He’s just such an awesome guy.

And he was one of the ones who spoke out about the Hologram Tour – after all of the negativity, he gave a really positive statement.
We talked about that – he’s excited! He totally gets what I’m trying to do. And when we start really delving into some of the insane visuals, he’s like, ‘You gotta have me down!’ He wants to be creatively involved. He has ideas. Which would be awesome, but he’s such a busy person. Who knows if that’ll transpire.
   But I trust him all day long. He’s such a mutant – he’s one of the coolest guys in the universe!

 

Interview conducted on Monday 5th February 2018.

 

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Rat Tomago t-shirt photo courtesy of Ahmet.

 

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[i] It is known by the ZFT as the 'Premore' shoot, after the company who filmed the show.

[ii] From his father’s album Them Or Us (1984).

[iii] These questions were put to Ahmet on my behalf by Scott Parker on Friday 15 December 2017 for Episode 35 of the ZappaCast.

[iv] From his father’s album Sheik Yerbouti (1979).

[v] From his father’s album Guitar (1988). Chalk Pie was also the title of an unreleased album: most of its tracks were instead released on Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982) and The Man From Utopia (1983).

[vi] Rockradio.de traditionally streams all shows live throughout the Zappanale weekend. On 17 July 2017, in response to a Tweet asking why his set had not been transmitted, Dweezil said, “it would have been a nice opportunity to share the Zappanale experience with a wider audience. The ZFT controls the rights to broadcasting.” This question was also put to Ahmet on my behalf for ZappaCast #35.

[vii] After our interview, I sent Ahmet this facsimile of the press release.

[viii] American film producer, and business partner with Ben Stiller in the company Red Hour Productions.

[ix] 1968 science fiction film starring Jane Fonda (in the title role) and directed by her then husband, Roger Vadim.

[x] Released under the band name Vai in 1993.