CHIN-WAG IN DE BUSH-WOP
Having chatted with Dweezil way back in 1991, I thought it was about time to show him that my interviewing technique had not improved one iota in the intervening 24 years. So I made an approach to Tom Waring [his UK agent] ahead of Zappa Plays Zappa’s sole 2015 UK tour date at the Royal Festival Hall on 18 October. Tom told me of a planned separate ‘solo’ show the day before at London’s Bush Hall, and that he would arrange something for that weekend.
Then the unthinkable happened: Dweezil’s mother – Frank’s widow – Gail passed away.
The possibility of cancelling the Bush Hall show was discussed, but on balance Dweezil decided he wanted to push ahead – and was happy for our interview to proceed.
So without further ado, here’s what happened in the Bush Hall Dining Rooms on Saturday 17 October 2015.
IB: Although Bush Hall is a one-off solo show for now, do you think this is what you might do more of in the future – is that the plan?
DZ: As far as tonight goes, it’s not going to be a complete solo show because we just didn’t end up having time with all that transpired over the past couple of weeks. So there’s gonna be a limited amount of some of my stuff, and then we’re gonna play the Zappa material that we won’t be playing tomorrow night.
IB: Any material from Confessions?
DZ: There’s some from Confessions.
IB: Even earlier?
DZ: We’re doing My Mother Is A Space Cadet[i], which we’ve never done before. I had to re-learn that. It’s been ten years since I focused on any of my own music, in terms of writing or recording, and it’s been even longer than that since I focused on actually playing any of it. Once we started rehearsing and practising some of the stuff we’re gonna do tonight, it was fun because it’s just a whole other thing. What’s funny is to see what challenges come from it in terms of what’s difficult for the band. My own music is quirky in some ways, in terms of the arrangements. Some stuff is not as it appears: there’s always something that’s over the bar-line or an extra beat here or there, which is just a natural thing that happens in my style of playing – something that is easy for me to play – but the band is like “This is weird!”
IB: They should be used to that with some of Frank’s music.
IB: So how much further do you think you can go with Zappa Plays Zappa? Obviously, I hope you’ll do it forever, but...
DZ: There’s a lot of material that we’ve still got to learn, and there’s other ways that we want to present this stuff. I would love to be able to do almost like a Grand Wazoo style band with different orchestrations and do some of the orchestral pieces. That would be a really cool, exciting thing: to be able to go ahead and play some of the things that were rock band stuff that never got an orchestral treatment, like for example Sinister Footwear, with a rock band at the core but have it with orchestrated parts – with a bigger brass section and all these things to bring out the colours and textures of the piece.
IB: There was of course an orchestral performance of Sinister Footwear in 1984, in San Francisco.
DZ: Yeah, but that didn’t have a rock band. It’s that combination of...Imaginary Diseases is a good example.
IB: Which was the first piece I ever saw ZPZ play, at the Albert Hall in 2006.
DZ: Yeah, but that record is kind of the sound that I’m talking about. Because he had a real rock rhythm section, but then you had the extra horns and other things that were added. You could do really cool stuff with pieces like The Black Page and Dog Meat, all this kind of stuff. So I’d like to be able to do a show that focuses on a lot of that material, which to me is the most exciting stuff of Frank’s compositional work. I would focus a lot on some of those major instrumentals with a project like that.
IB: Sounds great. Now of the tracks on you new album, Via Zammata’, how many were brand new songs, specifically written for it and how many were old songs.
DZ: Well, before I set out to do the record I had a spot of time on the calendar, maybe eight or nine months in advance, where we could plan something. And so as it approached, even two weeks before going into the studio, I still had not had any time to write or make any decisions about what was gonna be on the record. So I had to listen through some stuff that I had worked on in the past to see what could work as a collection of songs. It started off with about 20 songs that were possibilities, and all of them were more than 20 years old. And then, as I found a few that I felt would be good to focus on, I thought well I’ll write something...I changed some parts and arrangements. But the song Funky 15 was a new composition.
IB: What about Truth – is that a new one?
DZ: That’s an old one, that’s really old. That was originally a song with vocals. But I just decided to do it like a Jeff Beck-style arrangement.
IB: That’s one of my favourites.
DZ: Yeah, I really like the melody of that one; it reminds me somewhat of the music in the original Willy Wonka film.
IB: The Gene Wilder one.
DZ: Yeah. There’s something about it – that’s what it feels like to me when I listen to it. That one has a fretless guitar and it was a challenge to play that melody line and the solo with the fretless, but it’s a cool sound. And of course I got to work with Geoff Emerick on it, so it’s got that little Beatles kind of history, to a degree, because it already has that influence.
IB: When I first interviewed you in 1991 we talked a little about Dragon Master. It’s great to finally have your version out there. You’ve cleaned it up a bit though – you’ve left out Frank’s rather ‘parental advisory’ lyrics at the end.
DZ: Well that crazy ‘dragon masturbate’, all that stuff, that wasn’t in his lyrics. That was something that when we did a version with Z, that was a thing that just became this joke – it was like “Drag! Dragon! Dragon Mast! Dragon Master! Dragon Masturbates!” None of that stuff was in there originally.
IB: I detect Ahmet’s input there.
DZ: Yeah. So none of that stuff was in Frank’s original lyrics. But even so, the lyrics that are in my version, I did also change it a little bit, because there was “Dragon whore! Expose your vent! Your Master’s vengeance must be spent!” A great lyric, but what I decided to do when I put this together, I wanted it to have the feeling of a classic metal tune and originally I was gonna see if I could get somebody like Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson to sing it. But chances are good that those lyrics are not gonna be inspiring for them to want to sing it. So I just tweaked a couple of lines so that it still had the overall feel of this master of dragons, but it’s something that could potentially be on metal radio.
IB: The 1988 band did a rendition of it during rehearsals in Stockholm – you didn’t use that as a reference?
DZ: The only time I ever heard it was during that sound check. Frank had put something together, but then after the sound check, that’s when he handed me the lyrics and said, “You should write the music for this,” because he didn’t really have a riff for it. It was more like, as far as I can remember, just a chord progression type of thing – not like a blues progression, but a standardised kinda thing. He really didn’t create a major riff for it, which is what he thought it needed and that’s when he said that. I used to have a version that I played in Z that had more speed metal and other stuff in it. At that time, I went along more with the joke of the whole thing – you know, let’s put the humour at the forefront. But I did the opposite for this version. What I wanted to do was feel like I was playing it deadly serious so that the average metal person – an Iron Maiden, Dio or Judas Priest fan – they won’t hear a joke in it at all. But there are still things in it that make me laugh. There’s a line in it that says, “Hate the day! Hate the light!”, and I told the guy singing it, Shawn Albro, you’ve got to add an extra syllable to the word ‘light’. He says, “What do you mean?” I said, “Like Ronnie James Dio – sort of, ‘Hate the day! Hate the light-ahh!’” And he’s like, “You mean make it cool?” And I’m like “Yes!” So it’s got stuff like that, all these metalisms that to me make it funny.
IB: Tell us a little about the album title.
DZ: There’s this documentary film, Summer 82: When Zappa Came To Sicily, where we got to trace our family heritage to this small town in Partinico, Sicily. While we were there, we got to see the street where Frank’s family emigrated from. And the street was called Via Zammata’. And it was a tiny, tiny – like, not much bigger than this booth – house with a little door. It was number 13, Via Zammata’. So this tiny little place was where his family said, “We’ve got to see if there’s something better than this, somewhere else,” which is crazy, because it’s such a beautiful part of the world. It’s a nice town.
But anyway, we met all kinds of people and different relatives that we never knew about, and the experience of doing that and seeing how that street was then renamed Via Frank Zappa and how our family’s connected to that area, I just had the idea that when I made the record I wanted to mirror that in some way. I wanted to have many of the elements that inspired me to make music in different ways, and put them on the record – like production styles, music styles, instrumentation, all kinds of stuff. And I guess the fabric of it is all rooted in 60s/70s kind of production and a little bit of 80s stuff in there. And it’s definitely different from my other records in terms of song writing style, the vocals being the real driving element – in some cases, the guitar takes a real backseat in some of the songs.
IB: Do you have any idea if the Summer 82 will be released on DVD?
DZ: Apparently it’s now got some kind of distribution deal, to come out in December in Italy. They’re trying to get it into some other American film festivals - so maybe next year it will come out on DVD.
IB: You talked about Frank’s orchestral compositions, I understand you’ve been working on your own orchestral piece. Is that anywhere near being completion?
DZ: I have a piece that is basically done, but I recently did a thing in Montana with the LA Guitar Quartet and they asked me to write a piece of music for them. That was an interesting challenge, because they all play nylon string guitars so there’s not very much variation in the timbre of the instruments. So to make a piece of music that works for four guitars is pretty hard actually – so that you can really hear all the different colours. They’re very good at creating the different textures, the different playing styles and techniques. But I think it would be more interesting to hear the piece with other instruments in the brass context and stuff like that. The piece was a challenge to write. If I’m able to do this thing I was talking about where I put a big band together and play orchestral stuff, I would then also use that same environment to play some of these pieces.
IB: It would be difficult to tour something like that though?
DZ: It would be – but you never know!
IB: How do you feel the PledgeMusic campaign went for the album?
DZ: I had never had any experience with Pledge before. I didn’t even know what it was until somebody from Pledge approached me and said, “You should try this out,” and I said, “Okay, it sounds good.” There’s other things called ‘crowd funding’, but Pledge operates in a different way as far as I’m concerned. What you’re doing there is giving people a chance to pre-order the record and be part of the record. If they’re interested and they want to support it, they can see videos and blogs and other stuff. So if you put it into the perspective of like if it was 1968 and something like this existed, and people could be a fly on the wall listening to Jimi Hendrix or Frank Zappa or the Beatles as they made a record, it would be the most amazing, most popular thing going. Music has been so devalued over the years that there are only really a handful of people that still have this major attraction to music in that way – where they really want to support it and they want to see what’s happening and just be a part of this thing. That’s the sort of person that wants to help with a pledge campaign.
So the experience of doing it this way not only helped make the record, but it also was a positive experience on making it: you could see that there were people who were excited about what was happening and there was feedback. Normally when you make a record it’s a pretty insular kind of thing, you’re just doing whatever you do, and then the record comes out and people like it or they don’t or whatever. But in this case, people are there with you during it, so it changes the way the record is made. And the feeling is: everybody’s part of a team, and it was a fun way to do a record.
IB: Are you aware of PJ Harvey?
DZ: I know who she is.
IB: She just did a thing at Somerset House where they recorded an album behind glass in a studio and you could go and watch her. You couldn’t interact with her; you could just view her recording her album. Like an art installation kind of thing.
DZ: That’s weird. Is the album any good?
IB: It’s not out yet.
Obviously, the other side of the Pledge thing is that it can help get pre-existing material released. Are there plans like that for the ZPZ and George Duke live Apostrophe DVD?
DZ: That’s the plan. I’ve self-financed the thing all the way through so far, but to finish it up and make copies of it and get it out there, a Pledge campaign would help make that happen. And it’s also good for awareness.
IB: Absolutely, I had every update on Via Zammata’ pop-up on my Facebook timeline.
DZ: Yeah. That’s a really good overall performance of the material. It’s captured with really good cameras, good camera work and the lighting is good. The first DVD that we made turned out pretty well, but this one to me is much, much better on so many levels of production. So I’m excited about that one. But over the years we’ve filmed a lot of different shows and one of the things that I’d also like to do is make a documentary about the whole project of Zappa Plays Zappa – go back to the early days, with interviews, and even when the band was just learning stuff, and follow the progression of the thing. Because there’s so much material, so many songs.
The first DVD had something like 26-27 songs on it, and this next one has about the same with very limited overlap. And I have eight or ten shows that also have all this other material, again with very limited overlap and I’m guessing there are more than 100 songs: that’s a lot of material. And there’s things like Billy The Mountain: stuff that there’s no footage of it ever being performed by Frank. In some cases, some of these things that we’ve learned, they could be the only historical document of a live visual presentation.
IB: Parts of that are in Son Of Roxy aren’t they?
DZ: Yes, there’s a couple snippets of that in the promo, but on that tour we did the entire Billy The Mountain – the 29-minute extravaganza. But there’s just been so much material that we’ve learned over the years. I haven’t kept track, but I think it’s over 400 songs that we’ve learned.
IB: And there’s a lot to choose from, with 100 albums. Is there any chance that Zappa’s Universe will ever come out on DVD?
DZ: I don’t know. At the time that was a PolyGram thing.
IB: Does Universal own that now?
DZ: I have no idea about that.
IB: It’s funny because, with my fan-boy hat on, I wrote to your mother about that and asked if that might be on the horizon because I thought it would be good to support what ZPZ were doing. But she said that wasn’t recorded at a particularly happy period, with Frank...which hadn’t really crossed my mind – as a fan, I just wanted to see it out.
DZ: My experience of what it was...it wasn’t my favourite stuff – it wouldn’t be high on my list of things to push through before other stuff.
IB: Okay. What about What The Hell Was I Thinking?
DZ: That one I’ve been working on! Over the years, that thing has changed around a lot. It started as a ten minute piece of music, with just a couple of different styles of music tossed together. Then I thought, I’ll get some people to play on this, and then it became “Oh, why don’t I just extend it and I’ll have a few other people play on it.” And then ultimately it was why, don’t I try and make it the entire length of a CD, a 75-minute piece of music and get a bunch of different people to play on it, all these different styles of music. And at the time that I was really working on it a lot, I also had a bunch of Frank’s music thrown in as quotes – little pieces of G-Spot Tornado, City Of Tiny Lites, Sofa, The Black Page and several other little things.
IB: Some of those appear in the extended version of My Beef Mailbox.
DZ: Yeah. But that stuff doesn’t need to be in it now because Zappa Plays Zappa is playing specifically Frank’s music. So there’s a lot of staff that arrangement wise will change.
IB: So it’s still a living and breathing project?
DZ: Yeah. I don’t have any time crunch on that thing. It really is best described as an audio movie, because it’s texturally changing from scene to scene, moment to moment, and different guitar players are making these cameo appearances
IB: You talked about Joe Walsh doing his part in one take.
DZ: Yeah, he was very quick. He did one take with two different sounds: he did one with a talk box and one with a slide, and one take of each. He was spot on.
A lot of these people who’ve played on it are obviously very well known, but there’s new players that it would be nice to get on too.
IB: Guthrie Govan, perhaps?
DZ: Guthrie should be on there. There’s lots of great players out today. It’s just a weird time for guitar ultimately. There’s a lot of players out there that technically are doing stuff that was inconceivable years ago.
IB: Yeah, you see these little kids on YouTube that are like, wow!
DZ: Yeah. The thing is, how could it find an audience and in what form, so that it’s not necessarily just like a technical precision exercise or something.
IB: I don’t play at all, but I can still appreciate that stuff.
DZ: Being that there’s not radio airplay for that kind of music per se, it always fascinates me that people still take the time to get that good at that one thing that has such limited appeal. You could spend a lifetime to continue to learn how to be...
IB: But history is littered with artists and composers who weren’t a success in their lifetimes, but became household names years later.
DZ: Yeah. It’s a tricky thing, but there are a lot of great players out there now.
IB: I wanted to ask you about ‘Extraordinary Teamwork’ – something that was announced by the ZFT a few years ago, but the only real piece that came out of it was the Gene Simmons track, Black Tongue. The idea was that you could take pieces of Frank’s unreleased material and incorporate it into your own composition. For example, you could take something from the Synclavier and embellish it. That’s a dream of mine!
DZ: I’ve never heard of the phrase ‘Extraordinary Teamwork’ before. It was not something that was ever spoken to me about.
IB: Perhaps just one press release, the Gene Simmons thing came out, and that was it.
DZ: I never had anything to do with that press release or anything, so that’s new to me. But at one point I made an effort to approach Jeff Beck to see if he wanted to do something – because he and Frank had talked about making a guitar record, or making a record at some point – but I talked to him about whether he’d be interested in listening to some tracks and working with some of the tracks and it never really went anywhere. But that would be cool.
IB: Absolutely. I love Jeff – I think I saw him at one of your shows at the Marquee. He’s probably too busy working on his hot rods now.
I don’t want to embarrass you...too much! But can you tell me anything about the Poole family from Houston?
DZ: When I was on MTV, the Poole family, they have a lot of kids – the daughters at the time were really young – and they started writing me some letters. They were like six or seven, and they knew about Frank because Brad their father was into his music. And over the years, they’ve stayed in touch and all of the kids are into the music. And every time we go to Texas, some or all turn up at all the shows. It was really just that, they reached out and said, “Hey, we watch you on MTV.” So I would write them back, and whenever I’m near wherever they are, they show up.
IB: Brad wrote to me telling me how impressed he was by that – you’d touched their lives, and how your friendship has endured since the mid-80s.
DZ: Yeah, well my experience growing up was if there was something that was exciting or interesting to me and I had a chance to pursue it or learn more about it that involved meeting somebody that was influential – like Eddie Van Halen or something – that made a big impression on me. So if ever there’s a situation where somebody reaches out in some way and says, “Oh I like what you do and I want to learn more about this,” or whatever, I’m always happy to say, “Sure, I’ll give you a chance.” Even to the extent that when we do shows, if there’s kids in the audience, I’ll pull them up on stage and make them play my guitar, even if they don’t play. I was telling the band the other day – they were saying we’re playing in a place we don’t recognise called Hengelo. And I said “No, we’ve played there before.” There was a girl that came up on stage, she was about 12, and I brought her on stage and made her play the guitar, and she didn’t play guitar but now she does because of that experience – she has stuck with it. And her dad has written to me and said “Oh, she’s really into it.” It’s that kind of moment. I think it’s fun to do stuff like that, because I know what it was like for me when I was a kid and I was impressionable about music. So why not?
IB: What about your daughters? Do they show any inclination towards making music?
DZ: My daughter Zola is taking flute in school right now, and Ceylon...er, they both have guitars. It’s funny, because if I’m sitting playing guitar, which is pretty rare at home, they’ll come over and be interested in what I’m doing then go, “No, no – give me the guitar. Let me show you how to do it!” And they’ll just bang on it and do all kinds of stuff, and I’m like “That’s pretty good!” But what they like is to turn it up really loud and put some effects on and hear it do delay, they like to see what will happen with stuff like that.
TW: I know someone who hasn’t grown out of that.
IB: Yeah, me I think!
Some time ago, Diva talked about making an album with you. A few of the tracks have been released on the ‘birthday bundles’, but...
DZ: We did like six or seven songs, but I don’t remember how many they released on the bundles. I guess the whole thing should be released on one single thing. But what was remarkable about that was the process of doing it: she wouldn’t know anything about writing songs, she never learned to play an instrument or even tried singing. But she said, “I want to make a record,” and I was like “Whoa! Why?” And she just wanted to. So I said, “Okay, here’s what we’ll do...” The first song that we did, I interviewed her and wrote down her answers in the form of lyrics. And I said these are gonna be the lyrics to the song, and I’m gonna record the music for it, but you’re not allowed to hear it. So when you come to sing this, you get one chance – you re gonna look at these words, and whatever you do, that’s the song. I had to hide under the mixing console because I was laughing so hard. The vocal performance that she did, you can’t duplicate it. It’s this completely awkward, no idea when to come in, no idea what the melody is. But it’s captured in such a way that there’s this spontaneity to it. So there was something about that formula, once we got it, I said that’s the only way you’re allowed to record! So all the songs were done that way. It’s funny, because she probably could do a much more professional, better version.
IB: But that would ruin it.
DZ: Yeah, that’s not the vibe.
IB: Are you still in touch with Nuno Bettencourt, who co-produced Confessions?
DZ: I haven’t seen him in a while, but oddly enough I just got back in touch with Paul Geary, who used to be the drummer in Extreme. Now he’s a big manager of other bands like Godsmack. He just reached out to me the other day. But I haven’t seen Nuno for about six years or something.
IB: Haven’t Extreme reformed?
DZ: Yeah, they’re out playing again.
IB: Okay. What are the chances of you working with Mike Keneally again?
DZ: Probably not anything happening any time soon.
IB: Okay. What about the chances of reissuing your first solo album, Havin’ A Bad Day?
DZ: Potentially...what I was thinking is at some point – because I have such limited time: when I’m not doing the Zappa Plays Zappa stuff, which obviously takes up a lot of my time, I try to spend as much time as I can with my kids. It’s a challenge to get anything else done. But I’d like to refurbish my own catalogue and do something with it. But it’s not a major major priority, so we’ll see.
TW: Following up the question about Mike Keneally: given the opportunity, who would you like to work with again – or someone that you haven’t worked with already?
DZ: The one person we haven’t done anything with is Vinnie Colaiuta – that would be cool. And I could see me doing some more stuff with Steve Vai at some point. But the whole thing about alumni...this project was never made to create an opportunity for that – that was something that promoters wanted, so to make it happen at all, in the first year we had to use some. But the way that I have always seen Zappa Plays Zappa...it’s complicated to explain, but if you take Frank’s core fan base that started with him, if they were ten years younger than him, up to his age and ten years older than him, and they followed his whole career, at the point we started this in 2006, you’re seeing an audience that’s a minimum of 50 years old and a maximum of 70. So as it goes 10 years into the future, from 2006 to 2016, some of those people aren’t alive anymore.
IB: Sadly, that’s true.
DZ: So the whole notion of the music being carried forward into the future is that it needs to inspire a younger generation to discover the music and play it. What I had always said was that an audience needs to see people that didn’t have an affiliation with it so they can see that it’s possible and that you can show what kind of dedication is required to learn to do this stuff. Because when I was a kid and I watched these bands that Frank put together, it was like magic! Seeing them playing this stuff that’s so hard, yet they’re having fun. So if you want a younger audience, you’re not really gonna get that if everybody on stage is 60 plus. It doesn’t matter how great the musicians are, that’s just the nature of things.
I wanted to put a younger band together and focus on it that way, and that’s what I’ve been able to do. But in the beginning it was the promoters that wanted to turn it into a circus, and make it as many alumni as possible, at all times. And that doesn’t sound appealing to me at all. And it’s not because I don’t respect those musicians, it’s just for the reason that I’ve just described. That is not what is going to carry the music into the future.
I view this more as a repertory ensemble. If a classical ensemble is playing the music of whatever composer, they’re not trying to modernise it or change it to say “Hey, let’s get this new audience to enjoy this music.” They’re saying, let’s respect this music and play it the way it was so that generations can still be excited about this accomplishment. And that’s how I view Frank’s music, and that’s why we don’t really do anything to adulterate it at all. That’s been my approach. I want an apples to apples comparison as best as possible, so that if somebody hears what we do, and then they hear Frank, I don’t want it to sound like “Oh, it’s totally a different era – it’s got a rapper on,” and it’s got this or whatever. Why would those changes make it better? And why would that be the thing that would get somebody into Frank’s version? That doesn’t make sense to me, so that’s why I never bothered with any of that stuff. But so many people tell me that if I want to get a younger audience, I’ve got to modernise it. But Frank’s music is from the future. There’s nothing that sounds like it – you don’t need to modernise this. Look at a song like Who Are The Brain Police? It’s fifty years old and there’s nothing that sounds like that. So it’s a challenge to get people to understand that point of view, because it’s so easy for somebody to think “Oh, all you’ve gotta do is use all this newfangled stuff, use computers, get a rapper, do a dance version.” Well that’s not Frank’s music: he wouldn’t have done that, so why the fuck would I?
TW: We get that every year – fewer and fewer, now it’s ten years on – but it’s like, “Who’s gonna be the guest alumni this year?”
DZ: There’s a lot of people that are interested in that, but it’s generally the older audience. The younger audience don’t know who those people are. But what we see a lot, especially in the States, there’s a lot more younger kids that are coming to it and they know a lot about the music. And they’re super into the vinyl and all this kinda stuff, it’s a strange thing – and there’s more women! The first year we did this, it was just a sea of guys – and a couple of disappointed wives and girlfriends, like “Do I have to sit through this?” But now there’s actually girls that really know the music. It’s so bizarre to me to see a teenage girl to whom Frank is their favourite musician, and she’ll know all the music and they’ve got like a Frank Zappa tattoo. This is the craziest thing ever. Back in the 70s, most of the women only liked whatever songs that could possibly have been played on the radio. That was just the culture, that’s how people get used to hearing the music.
IB: Talking of disappointed girlfriends: in 1982, I took my then fiancée to see Frank at Hammersmith Odeon, and he strode out and said something like “How many of you guys have come here trying to impress your girlfriends so you might get a blow-job later?” I put my head in my hands, thinking “Oh no”. But she still married me, and thirty years later we’re still together.
DZ: What’s interesting, and we hear it a lot too, there’s a lot of women that come to the shows now with their husbands or whatever and they say I never got the music until I saw you guys plays it. There’s something different about it now, because I have always just tried to make it about the music. Frank had his own agenda with how he would give every performance, there could be political messages and there could be other social commentary, which makes the music great and all. But that’s for him to do – it’s not for me to impersonate Frank.
In the way that it’s presented now, where it focuses on a broad spectrum of the music, it’s intended to educate an audience about all of the things Frank did, and so I get that from a lot of women saying I never got it till I saw you guys play it, and you guys look like you’re having so much fun! They also like seeing Scheila, and say “Oh, there’s a woman whose playing this stuff.” There’s a lot of that that happens. And even people that have seen Frank a bunch of times say, I know more about the music now from seeing you guys play it, because we give a little back story. And also, they were totally fucked up when they saw Frank, and now they’re sober. So there’s a difference in a lot of that stuff – it’s a strange process.
TW: It’s a very different experience seeing it played well live, and listening to it on a shitty hi-fi or something.
DZ: That has always been a part of his music: seeing it played live, it’s not unlike classical music – well, it really is classical music – but when you see it with a band, all these things are orchestrated with people doing all this stuff together at the same time...I mean, it’s hard enough to convince people to show up on time to go to lunch, right? So to get people on stage doing the same thing at the same moment at that one particular time to execute something, it’s like a mini-miracle. So when you see really difficult stuff, it’s like “Wait a minute. First of all, how was that written? And how are they even playing that?” That’s what I saw when I would see Frank play. And even the band, we can listen to the show after and go, “Wow! I can’t believe we played that!” It’s that weird thing of, even though we’ve learned to do it, it’s still quite a feat. It’s like training for the Olympics. It’s hard stuff. We care a lot about the detail.
TW: Of all of the stuff that you’ve learned to play with Zappa Plays Zappa, what was the toughest to learn? What was the one thing you heard back after and thought, “That was something!”?
DZ: That’s happened a few times. There’s some stuff that’s really hard on the guitar and not necessarily that hard on other instruments, and some it’s the other way around. And so there’s a few songs that fall into the category of super-hard.
IB: Might G-Spot Tornado be one of those?
DZ: G-Spot is really hard on the guitar.
IB: You used to play that with Z, but you played it a lot slower than the original.
DZ: We only ever played a part of it, though; we never played the whole song. But the middle section in that is wicked. In terms of just complex rhythms, and tough to play from top to bottom, Dog Meat is really hard...on the guitar. But I love that one.
IB: Me too!
DZ: As a song, Inca Roads is incredibly hard. That’s really really hard on the guitar. St Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast is super hard on the guitar.
IB: That’s the thing – some of these songs weren’t designed to be played on the guitar.
DZ: They weren’t ever played on the guitar! St Alfonzo’s and Inca Roads, even Steve Vai never played those in Frank’s band. He told me, “I tried to learn that stuff, but I couldn’t do it.” Because it doesn’t lay out on the guitar, if you are an alternate picking guitarist, it’s not possible, you just can’t play it – not up to tempo, there’s just no way. I had intended to learn the melody of Sinister Footwear, but I didn’t end up having enough time to learn it. But the band learned it, and I just let them continue to play the melody because Frank never played the melody. Steve did. But I want to learn that, because that one has some hard stuff – it’s probably the most demanding one of all the stuff that we’ve learned. Moggio is very hard. One of the things that Frank said none of the bands ever played right was...
IB: ...Ship Arriving...
DZ: ...Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, that interlude in there, that’s something that we plan to learn at some point. To get the performance that’s on the record, there’s probably seven edits from different shows. Knowing how hard that is, that’s gonna be a challenge. But there’s never been anything that we’ve set out to learn that we weren’t able to do. We only have a six-piece band at this point, so there’s quite a lot of double-duty that’s happening, on the keyboards and things.
IB: And Ben on trumpet.
DZ: Trumpet...and Scheila’s playing horns. Some of the arrangements sound really full for a six-piece band, for things like Grand Wazoo. But some people say they miss the marimba, but marimba’s in there, you hear the marimba. When you’re watching it on stage, you see a guy hitting stuff but you’re not looking over his shoulder to see what’s happening. If you hear a version of something from our tour now to how it was with a bigger band, all the textures and timbre of instrumentation, it’s still there. It’s exactly what it needs to be. It’s just that you don’t see a guy physically playing it. It’s because Chris can play a part and have it doubled or tripled with different instruments because it’s mapped out so that as he’s playing it, it’s outputting several instruments at the same time. It’s pretty impressive.
IB: When he joined the band, there was talk of Chris also playing violin.
DZ: His violin chops are not up to snuff for a lot of the parts. It’s okay for a couple of things, but it’d be cool to have somebody that can do all that. But there’s not a lot of that in Frank’s music. There was a very short period of time where he had a couple of people that played violin.
IB: There was Ponty, Shankar, Sugar Cane Harris...
DZ: ...and that other guy...hmm...in the 70s...
IB: ...Eddie Jobson. There’s a monster version of Black Napkins with him on.
DZ: Black Napkins, that’s a tune that we’re probably gonna play tonight[ii]. I haven’t played it in forever. That’s such a classic of Frank’s.
IB: I named my first cat after that...a black part-Persian.
TW: You’re madder than I thought!
DZ: It’s hard to play that one. The theme of it is a simple thing, but the phrasing is super hard to replicate, and then to improvise in a way that is similar to his style, that makes that song extra really hard because he’s doing little rhythmic twists and turns in his improvisation on the Zoot Allures version...yeah, it’s gonna be a challenge to get back into that headspace.
TW: And the sacred cow that you finally slaughtered, which was Watermelon In Easter Hay, to me that was something else.
IB: I saw that at Shepherd’s Bush...but you played it in New York first?
DZ: Yeah. That was tough, man. That was very hard. I mean, it’s a hard song to play, but it’s emotionally hard. There’s a lot of that with a lot of these songs. Sometimes there’s moments where I’ll be playing and something will just strike me in the moment, that it’s like “Wow! It didn’t even feel like I played that – that came from some other place.” Then it gets emotional; “Oh man, this is tough,” you know?
It’s good though!
[i] The full set-list was: My Mother Is A Space Cadet / Boodledang / Kidz Cereal / Flibberty Jibbet / Vanity / F.W.A.K. / Dragon Master / The Mammy Anthem / My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama / A Pound For A Brown On The Bus / Baby Snakes / I’m So Cute / Imaginary Diseases / Status Back Baby / Big Leg Emma / Big Swifty / The Torture Never Stops. Encores: The Evil Prince / I’m The Slime.
[ii] Because of the Bush Hall curfew, Black Napkins had to be cut from the set-list.