For the past decade, Dweezil Zappa has been focused on Zappa Plays Zappa, the band he started to perform the music of his late father, the legendary Frank Zappa, in concert. In the process, he hoped this would introduce his father’s music to new generations of music fans and help people recognize the stylistic range and the compositional genius his father brought to his work.
Learning his father’s music turned out to be quite the education for Dweezil. Not only did he gain a new world of insights into his father’s music and compositional methods, he basically had to relearn guitar and develop a whole new range of abilities on his instrument to play his father’s music. The son also became a band leader in a true sense, learning how to arrange and orchestrate his father’s music and directing the various members of his Zappa Plays Zappa band in their performances of the Frank Zappa material.
Now, fans are getting a good yard stick for how Zappa Plays Zappa has helped Dweezil Zappa develop his talents with the recent release of his first album of original material since his 2006 release, “Go With What You Know.” That album arrived the same year he put together the original edition of Zappa Plays Zappa.
“It’s definitely for sure influenced by what I’ve learned from my father’s music in performing it for the past decade,” Zappa, 45, said of the new album, titled "Via Zammata." “I think other production elements, just in terms of arrangement and orchestration, what instruments are used and how they are used, that definitely comes into play on the record. As far as guitar technique, I definitely have gotten to a place where I can do things that I never thought I could ever do before. And in terms of improvisation, it’s good because it gives me many more tools for keeping themes going with more rhythmic and melodic variety. That’s the thing that’s really come to play in all of this is I just have more of a vocabulary and tools to work with to create new ideas.”
In making his new album, Zappa drew from music that spans more than two decades and looked to use his knowledge and experience to and give the songs new life.
“What I ended up doing was I took several things that were demoed about 20 years ago, or longer than 20 years, and reworked a lot of those things,” he said. “Then I wrote some new stuff as well. So the collection of stuff is interesting in that it took material that preceded anything I did with Zappa Plays Zappa and then allowed me to use my new sort of arranging and orchestrating skills to put those to use with those songs, and then also write some new stuff.
“It’s definitely, I think, different than what people are probably going to expect in terms of a record,” Zappa said. “It’s kind of hard to describe it, but it’s mostly vocal songs that are kind of almost quirky pop songs. Then it has some various instrumentation that is unusual. I did write a piece of music that has string and horn parts, this orchestral kind of arrangement. So there’s a lot of stuff that I wanted to try to do that was all taking me way past any comfort zone and way past anything I’d ever done on any record before.”
One song that is sure to intrigue fans of both Frank and Dweezil Zappa is “Dragon Master.” It’s the only song the father and son ever co-wrote before the elder Zappa’s death from prostate cancer in December 1993.
“He wrote the lyrics at a sound check in 1988, I believe it was,” Zappa said. “He was originally thinking of it as a just a real spoof on heavy metal. He said ‘Oh, you should write the music to this.’ So I did write a version of it that, when I had a band with my brother that was called Z in the early ‘90s, we used to play it live. But we never recorded the song. And I completely changed the whole arrangement of it and the music for it for this record.
“Even though originally Frank was kind of spoofing the world of metal – there’s a hint of the humor of all that metal stuff – I also wanted to celebrate the metalness of it for the people who really love that kind of stuff,” he said. “So, it actually really is played as like a full hardcore, yes, we are super metal, kind of thing. So it’s got the authentic quality to it, but you get the hints at some of the humor in there.”
The work on the new solo album doesn’t mean Zappa is stepping away at all from Zappa Plays Zappa, which also features Scheila Gonzalez (saxophone, flute, keyboards, vocals), Ben Thomas (vocals), Chris Norton (keyboards, vocals), Kurt Morgan (bass), Ryan Brown (drums) and Pete Jones (auxiliary instrumentalist/vocalist). In fact, the group is touring much of this year and has a concert DVD in the works that captures the group on a 2010 tour performing Frank Zappa’s 1974 album, “Apostrophe.”
For the current tour, which is coming Dec. 4 to Cargo Concert Hall at the Whitney Peak Hotel, Zappa Plays Zappa will mark the 40th anniversary of the album “One Size Fits All,” Frank Zappa’s final album with his landmark band, the Mothers Of Invention.
That album includes several songs – including ”Andy,” “Florentine Pogen,” “Po-Jama People,” “Sofa” and “San 'Berndino” -- that are among Dweezil Zappa’s favorites and have been played during Zappa Plays Zappa concerts over the years. That posed an issue in deciding to do the full album on this tour.
“It’s kind of a challenge of do we want to try to make it like the record, or do we want to play it as we have been playing it, with certain characteristics,” Zappa said. “So for example, a song like ‘Po-Jama People’ has a fade out (on the album). We’ve played that song before, and I put an ending on it, which is one of the only times where I ever actually put something together that had never been in one of his songs. I made a very specific ending for it. And so that may be something that we’ll utilize on this instead of just playing a fade out.
“Mostly what we try to do in general is to re-create the details of the instrumentation and try to use the same sounds that are really from the era from the version that we’re doing,” he said. “So if we’re doing an early ‘60s version of an original Mothers of Invention song we want to try to capture the sound that is evocative of that era, as opposed to doing a modern sounding version with modern equipment.
That’s sort of like the partial time travel element of it. If you can really make it evocative of the era, then it’s much more authentic.
That’s the challenge we always have, is just really trying to choose which version we’re doing and then try to get the instrumentation as close as we can.”