DWEEZIL ZAPPA INTERVIEW, December 2010
After every show, Dweezil stays behind and goes to a lot of trouble to give fans an opportunity to meet him, signs tickets/posters/CD's (and sometimes even body parts!) as a souvenir, and answers their myriad questions with great honesty and patience. I thought it would be interesting for people on this site to have a slightly more in-depth glimpse of where Dweezil is with his life and career at present, so he kindly set some time aside for me to interview him on the afternoon of the Phoenix show. This is the transcript:
TW: If it’s OK, let’s start with where you've gotten to today – where the music is, where you are with your career, then work through a few questions that touch on the past and finally let’s talk a bit about the future.
TW: So, heading into the sixth show on this the US leg of the ‘Apostrophe’ tour, are you happy with the way the shows are going?
DZ: Yeah, this tour has been a lot of fun so far. The challenge we always have is to stay focused and to concentrate on executing the parts as well as we can. Now, as you know since you've been for traveling for six straight days following the tour, it's hard just staying healthy. If you're not getting enough rest it can affect how well you are able to concentrate and execute parts. We are all very committed to playing as best we can and giving 100 % every night. We have to pace ourselves energy-wise during long continuous stretches. This is not an easy show to do, it features a lot of hard compositions. Inca Roads, St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast, Cruisin' for Burgers, RDNZL. They are all extremely challenging to play for various different reasons.
TW: But the band look like they’re enjoying it
DZ: Oh yeah, for sure everyone has fun on stage. I think everyone in the band enjoys their role in the music. We strive to always raise the level of what we do every night. The songs have a life of their own especially in a live situation. We never phone this in, we try to be in the moment all the time. The music deserves it and so does the audience.
TW: Yes and you can see that, the audience sees that in the shows. Ok, any highlights so far? We’ve previously been talking about LA and George [Duke] and that very special evening…….
DZ: Yeah, that was definitely great. It was the highlight so far for sure. Right from the start there has been a great feeling and good energy on this tour. We've been wanting to have George Duke join us for a long time. I introduced him as one of our all time favorite musicians because he really is. Everyone in the band has been inspired and influenced by him. It was really fun to share the stage with him. It was great to watch him play up close, especially on the songs where he was playing with the video of Frank. I always loved the interplay between Frank and George while Frank was soloing.
The funny thing is we had only about four or five hours of rehearsal before starting this tour. We had a few weeks off since our European tour ended. George came into rehearsal and we played for about 4 or five hours. Other than that the band hadn't played together since the last show and I hadn’t even played guitar hardly at all since the last show in Malmo Sweden.
Going into the tour with such limited practice usually makes me a little bit nervous. I know I know the songs but to be able to really execute them in front of an audience, without making mistakes is always stressful. The good news is when you have that renewed sense of energy it makes for a good show. San Francisco was a fun show because we were really excited to be playing again.
TW: Which was a great kick-off… George sat in with you for one practice session before the LA show?
DZ: Yeah and then he was at soundcheck on the first day as well.
TW: Had he come to see any of the shows before?
DZ: He saw us in New York a couple of years ago. We had been trying to get in touch with him about sitting in with us but it never materialized until now. The interesting thing is, he’s on so many recordings and he‘s done so much work with Frank, yet it’s so far in the past for him that literally when we were talking to him about certain song titles he’d say ‘What’s that?' He’s not connected to the music like you might imagine. Certainly not in the same way the fans are connected to it or in the way we are connected to it. We're very familiar with all of the songs George plays on but George doesn’t remember playing on a lot them. I think that’s a valid thing. They are not his compositions and once he stopped playing them there's no reason to keep them committed to memory. I forget how to play songs I've spent months learning and months playing live. As soon as I stop playing them I forget them. “Dog Meat” is great example of that. I draw a complete blank on that one every time I stop playing it. It takes me a few weeks to relearn it every time we bring it back in to the show.
In ZPZ we've learned over 140 songs. However at any given time I might be able to remember about 40-60 of them depending on how much we have played them in the past. We all have limited room in our brains to store information.
TW: When George got back to it he looked like he enjoyed it, you could tell that on the second night particularly, he loved it….
DZ: Yeah there’s a good chance this stuff holds a special place in his life. There’s a lot of really great stuff he was a part of with Frank.
TW: Ok, the band’s obviously happy to be back on home turf again…but I’m quite interested in the Roundhouse event and your reaction to it, because for me and a lot of other people it was as a whole event just something really special and the whole family was there (Ahmet aside) and they all seemed to really enjoy it
DZ: Yeah, I didn’t get to see a lot of the other stuff. I wish I had been able to see ‘Greggery Peccary’ and ‘The Yellow Shark’, but I guess I’ll get to see it on video. Coming in for that show and kicking off our European tour was another difficult thing to do. We had a limited amount of rehearsal before that tour as well, just under 2 weeks and I flew in the night before the Roundhouse. It was tough to adjust to the new time schedule, so for me the Roundhouse show was a particularly difficult show because I’d only had about an hour and a half of sleep. I got all turned around and I’d been up since 4.30AM the day of the show and never took a nap or anything.
TW: Grim! Did you spend much time with Dave Gaydon there ?
DZ: Only a little. I saw what he does there and saw the facility.
TW: It’s really good, the charitable aspect of it and the way they use music to straighten kids out and give them opportunities to get involved
DZ: Yeah, it seems like a really cool thing.
TW: Have you talked about or thought about doing a DWEEZILLA type event in Europe? Doing some workshops for the kids and things?
DZ: Yes, we’ve been talking a little about where would be a good location. The Roundhouse might be good and there’s also another potential place in Liverpool, the Paul McCartney Foundation is there and seems like a good facility. I would love to do a UK DWEEZILLA. Maybe there’s a chance to do it in two locations, or even if it’s not a full scale DWEEZILLA maybe some other clinics/teaching events. I would like branch out and do DWEEZILLA in Europe as well as Australia and Japan. Even China, why not?
TW: Maybe you could do some workshops before shows? I know you’re into that sort of thing…
DZ: Oh yeah, I love the whole teaching aspect of things, it’s really rewarding for me. I think the whole band really had a great time teaching at DWEEZILLA as well. Going into it they seemed a little skeptical and unsure how it would all go because not everyone in the band had teaching experience. In the end it was a great event and a fun time for everyone. I found that I learned a lot from teaching. In many ways, more than as a student.
TW: Well, you’ve seen some of the videos posted on the site by young fans in Europe and you’ve got some potential students there already....
DZ: Yeah, Haakon from Norway. I offered to give him a DWEEZILLA scholarship. I think he's going to come. I offered another scholarship to dOily a trumpeter from Australia too.
TW: Ok let’s talk about some other stuff: Say a young person who might have seen or heard one of your shows or CD’s but really doesn’t know Frank’s music …if he came up to you and said I really want to learn and experience Frank’s music but I’m pretty intimidated by the volume of work and where do I start? How would you set out a roadmap for getting into Zappa - because a couple of people I know tried it, didn’t know where to start, maybe picked the more inaccessible stuff at first and really struggled…
DZ: Yeah, well I usually tell people ‘Apostrophe’, and ‘Overnite Sensation’ is a good place to start. I think those two records are perfect for anybody who’s never heard the music before and wants to have a chance to be exposed to it. The reason is, for lack of a better term, it's some of Frank's most accessible music. The sound of the records is also a big part of it. They are recorded so well. They're really impressive and engaging. The compositions have bit of everything. There's rock, classical, jazz, latin, gospel, funk, blues and story telling and humor. Of course there's great guitar playing on there too. Frank really developed some signature tones on those records. He did all of that, sometimes all in one song!
On this tour we’re hoping to be able to attract some fans willing to take the plunge for the first time. I think Frank’s music has the ability to draw you in even if you don’t know the music at all because there’s so much variety in it. There are so many textures and things to keep your interest. That’s one of the most incredible things about his music. It has such repeat listening value and unpredictability.
As I was saying, I usually tell people to start at ‘Apostrophe’ and ‘Overnite Sensation’. If they like those records then I say go back to Freak Out and Absolutely Free. Then listen from there, forward to ‘Apostrophe’. In that ten year period so much happened and if you learn about that period then everything else in his career makes sense. It's all part of the whole journey that he was on. The folklore and conceptual continuity is apparent right from the beginning.
TW: What’s your favorite album of his and what’s your favorite track or cut that was released?
DZ: You know it’s so difficult to say, It depends on my different moods. I mean, I love ‘Yellow Shark’, I think that’s got amazing stuff on it….
TW: I thought it was fantastic live [at the Roundhouse]
DZ: Yeah, absolutely. ‘Dog Breath’ and ‘G-Spot Tornado’, they are definitely stand out pieces. I’m obviously a sucker for all the guitar stuff so I love the ‘Shut Up n’ Play Your Guitar’ record. I love ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay.’ It's the champion of everything .. you really can’t get better than that as far as guitar instrumentals go.
Production-wise, I think ‘Joe’s Garage’ is one of the best sounding records ever made, period. That one, ‘Apostrophe’ and ‘Overnite Sensation’, they're just so evocative of an era – a bygone era of album making and musicianship. Using the right musicians in the right recording space with the right equipment is what it was always all about and capturing the energy and the detail. It's different now. Now it’s about getting a sound and then manipulating it to be something other than what it is. Using a computer to fix every little thing until the life is sucked out of it and it’s impossibly and un-naturally in tune.
Frank was really a master at arranging stuff and choosing the right instrumentation so the piece really comes to life.
TW: You touched on it already, ‘Watermelon’ being one of your absolute favorites, and I asked this informally the other night but [let’s go over it ] again just for this [interview] - Everyone asks, you know, how come you don’t do it in your shows?
DZ: Well, eventually I believe I will but I have to overcome the emotional barrier first. It’s just devastating for me to listen to it with his laugh and his brilliant playing on that track.
If I learn it, I would want to learn it note for note and so that it would be possible to perform it as he did. If I was ever to deviate from it at all it would have to come from knowing it really well, inside and out first.
That's just not something that’s easy to do. It would take a lot of time to learn how to play it exactly as he did. To phrase it right and get the right sound, memorize it …. just for that alone that’s easily six months of work.
I don't think people realize that, they think ‘Oh you can just go up and play it’... No I can’t.
TW: The website is gathering momentum and lots of fun stuff going on between members, it provides a positive platform and positive way for you to communicate with people which is great….Is the site living up to your expectations and is it developing fast enough - and are the members taking it in a direction you want it to go?
DZ: I had no idea what it would do. I have been surprised by the real community that’s built up. You’re using that to your advantage for this trip.
TW: I’ve met so many fun and different people from the site on this trip it’s been brilliant….
DZ: Yeah it’s fun to look in the audience in different places and see three four or five people that you know from the site. It's easy to make friends online and have it carry over because of common interests. That's the best thing about it. It's a place where we all have something in common.
It crosses age barriers and it crosses language barriers. It's pretty amazing.
Oddly enough, I learned something interesting about this kind of thing from golf. I've played a lot of golf with people that I hadn’t met before. That's part of the game. You can end up spending five hours with someone that you wouldn't otherwise spend any time with just because of a common interest. Afterwards, you may still find you that you have nothing in common, except golf, but that’s the one thing you’re able to connect through, for five hours and have mutual respect ..
Everyone on dweezilzappaworld can probably relate to that a little bit. It might seem that we all have little in common in our daily lives yet we can talk passionately about our shared preference in music. I've found that for lot of people - and maybe you felt this growing up listening to the music - if you listened to Frank Zappa music you tended to be looked at as an outcast, or feel that you were an outcast. I wanted to make this site be a place where people could feel happy to meet other people that had a similar interest and just be totally free to be themselves about it without any judgment. I like to try to keep things pleasant and respectable over here. Honestly, I wish it was like that over at Zappa.com too but it's not. That's a whole other world over there.
TW: Well that brings us on to the Elaine Boyd saga. From your perspective can you tell us, was she real or was she someone’s idea of a joke. I mean, I know you found out…
DZ: Yeah, I mean the thing is it was a real person. I don't know if it was really a woman or a guy pretending to be a woman or a complete lunatic. The question was, is this really a person that’s just goofing off or is this a person that has a mental problem? Also could this really be somebody that could be potentially harmful and show up at a show or something and cause trouble?
TW: That was my next question: did you think she posed a real threat to you and how did you get her to back off?
DZ: I didn’t really. Honestly I thought that a lot of the posts were pretty funny. I thought they were some kind of a joke…
TW: But when it came to attacking the other girls on the site ….
DZ: Right, I didn’t like that aspect of it and I don’t like it when anybody attacks anybody on the site. She really crossed the line at the end so that’s when I had to pull the plug on her.
I’d seen some other things before where people were ganging up on other people and I would give them warnings and say, "I really don’t want anyone to feel like they're going to come on here and get harassed just because you don’t like the writing style… you don’t have to read it." Sometimes people, in their way of having fun, try to take somebody down … you know? It's okay to be sarcastic and you can be witty and funny and all those things but you don’t have to be rude.
TW: OK… Hot topic on the site at the moment, are you actively in the process of composing new material of your own, and if so is that process done collectively, I don’t mean collectively, I mean in collaboration with the band or some band members or is it a completely solo endeavor.
DZ: It's a good question. I've had very limited time for anything to do with my own music. I’m starting to check out different ways to write, you know, there’s new tools available for me to create ideas with that I've never explored.
One thing that I’m not very adept at at all is music notation. So, just for fun I’ve been screwing around with some software that lets me just put notes on a page and listen to them play back. I’ve just been randomly selecting notes and then I listen and think ‘oh I don’t like that much’ so I can go ahead and change that one … so I’m doing it in a way I never have done before. Normally in the past I would be playing stuff on the guitar, now I’m just looking at stuff differently and I’m listening to it differently. My experience with ZPZ and all the changes I've made to my own playing have brought me to a new place, uncharted territory, really.
I’m thinking more in terms of orchestration and bigger arrangements, not just guitar music like I've done in the past. I’m keen to eventually do some film scores and stuff like that. So that’s part of what I'm working towards.
Another interesting thing is that I was approached by an orchestra in Holland to write a classical piece...
TW: That’s not something you do on one Sunday afternoon is it!
DZ: No... They were interested in having me write a piece for them to perform and then also play some of Frank's music. I'm interested in the idea. I don't know if it will ever happen though.
I need to spend some time writing and exploring that side of things.
I have some other ideas I'm discussing at the moment, regarding a tour of my own music and/or a special multi-guitarist event tour.
TW: I got a sense from some of recent traffic on the site you were almost hinting that there might be some stuff that would come maybe next year?
DZ: Hopefully that will happen. The possibility is that we could do some of my previously existing material but I’d like to have some new stuff that I write specifically for the band. Maybe a combination?
In the past, I was really just writing guitar riffs and stuff like that. So what would my music would consist of now? I really don’t know, because I haven’t really had time to discover what it is at this point in time. I have so many more skills than I had ten years ago, so we’ll have to see.
TW: Well done on the Grammy nomination, terrific!
DZ: Well thanks!
TW: Looking at your own solo career and this ZPZ project, what are you most proud of personally in a general sense and specifically do you have a stand out piece or passage or track where you sometimes think, yeah that was really great?
DZ: Well you know what’s funny starting there, is that literally every night after the show I will listen to the show and I listen to it pretty much in a fan perspective. I know what it takes to do this stuff and the amount of time that goes into learning it and performing it, even with that in mind I listen to it and I'm amazed that it’s possible to do what we do. Everyone in the band has a lot of talent and musicality. They work really hard and I believe you can hear the results.
TW: They make it look easy too, and everyone knows it isn’t!
DZ: Yeah, but that's the thing - Frank’s bands made it look easy too. You rehearse really well so you can react in the moment and that’s what it’s all about. It’s like the secret service, they're supposed to react to hearing a gunshot and jump in front of a bullet. So you have to train your instincts to be something different than what you’re used to. I had a whole different way I used to play guitar technically. Mentally the approach was even more different.
So, through this process of growing more and more I’ve been able to expand way beyond anything I ever thought I could ever do on the guitar. There are plenty of examples of things that I listen to and think, Wow, I can’t believe we did that. Every time I hear myself play the Rollo interior line in 'St Alfonzo' I think wow, I can't believe I can play that.
Recently, ‘The Deathless Horsie’ from ‘Return Of The Son Of...’ got nominated for a Grammy. That's a six minute improv guitar solo, and so for that to be nominated for a Grammy is another one of those moments. It's totally bizarre to me because it’s not a fully composed piece of music, it’s something that happened live on stage in the moment, a spontaneous composition. So if it was to win that would be pretty remarkable. I don’t think it will, but its cool that people noticed it enough to nominate it. I have no idea how any of that works by the way...
TW: Do you feel confined by the responsibilities you’ve created for yourself by dedicating so much of your time and maybe your creative time as well because you’ve been so busy with ZPZ?
DZ: Umm, I don’t because I think it has allowed me to do stuff that I would never have been able to do at all otherwise. The skills that I have acquired in the process will suit me well when I do have time to do my own stuff … so, the journey has been great fun and immensely inspirational. So I have no issues in that regard.
TW: OK, let’s look at life in general. You went through a rough patch last year….
DZ: Still going through a really rough patch with no end in sight.
TW: Oh really, well that’s answered the question really. Aren’t you seeing your way to a better space though?
DZ: It’s a real challenge you know. There’s nothing fun about divorce or custody battles and it’s been a huge strain emotionally and quite honestly, financially. So it makes everything in my life much, much, much harder to do. But you know what? I love my daughters to death and they are worth all of this unnecessary legal battle misery. It’s rough but I’m still standing…
TW: Ok, so you’re ploughing through it and you’ve got your girls to focus for, which is everything, as we parents all know….
DZ: Yes sure…
TW: So, let’s talk about the next generation of Zappa’s! Obviously, on the site you’ve shared with us the fun you’ve had painting with your daughters and their making a super mess…. are they showing artistic talent and are they showing musical talent?
DZ: They love to sing, they love to mess around with instruments. I think they have a fascination with sound in general. If I have a guitar out then they like to try to play it and Zola who is my oldest is always asking me to turn it up louder … she loves it loud as it can be …. of course I never turn it up too loud! She also asks for esoteric sounds. She asked me to make it sound like it was underwater once. Maybe she had been listening to some “Band Of Gypsies” when I wasn't looking...
TW: How old is she?
DZ: She’s just four and her sister is 2. The few times they have seen me play a concert they get interested and they start talking about the show. The last time they saw me play, we played at the Greek Theater which is an outdoor venue in LA.
For a few days after that they would say to me ‘Daddy, let’s play Greek Theater’ and they would put on a show for me like they were “air” playing at the Greek Theater. I love it and I’ll definitely keep an eye open to what they their musical interests are, but I’m not going to push it on them you know.
My Dad, once he realized I was really into playing guitar, he would help me figure some stuff out but he didn’t tell me exactly how to do it. He didn't ever sit me down and try to create a road map of how I should approach stuff. To a degree I wish he would have tried to do that. I actually would have liked it if he had created some more structure for me. I think his goal was to make sure I was playing because it was something I was intrinsically motivated to do, not extrinsic.
TW: Yeah, if as a parent you push kids they often turn away from stuff, its just human nature.
DZ: Yeah, it can be.
TW: I thought it was cool Moon came up and performed Valley Girl at the Roundhouse……..
DZ: Yeah, it was great!
TW: I saw her beforehand and she said she’d never done it live before…..
DZ: No, she never had.
TW: Did she get stage fright?
DZ: Not so much, you see the thing about that song is that’s so much a part of her personality, it's what made that song what it is. There’s really no way that she can make a mistake, you know what I mean? So that would be very different than having her go up and sing a song, you know something that she didn’t write. I think that is where the real fear or stage fright can creep in. She doesn’t have any real training as far as playing with bands and stuff like that so .. I would have been more concerned for her if she was going to sing one of Frank's songs - especially if she didn’t have proper time to rehearse it and all that kind of stuff. Not to mention all of the other details, like having the right mix in your monitors, etc. It can be very stressful to perform if you’re not comfortable.
TW: Is it true she put a note under Frank’s door one night saying let’s make a song?
DZ: As far as I know, yeah. One night around 2 in the morning he said come downstairs to the studio. She did and that’s the story. ‘Valley Girl’ was fun to learn and play live. As you said, Moon had never performed that song live ever! Frank's band never performed it live either. Mathilda was great up there too. She really had fun and that’s going to be a good memory for her.
And that’s the thing at shows, periodically, you know, if I see young kids in the audience I like to bring them up on stage and put my guitar on them. It's great fun and it’s a good thing that really brings the audience together in the moment.
I just know from my experience growing up, if I got interested in stuff, if somebody showed a special interest in what I was doing it was a big deal for me. It made it that much more exciting and that much more inspiring to stay with it and do it to the best of my abilities. It gave me the sense that anything was possible if I worked at it. So, when I invite a kid on stage and make him/her play guitar, I think of it in terms my own childhood. It's an experience that will connect them to music in a special way for a lifetime. Maybe not just music, but Frank's music. That's one of the most beautiful things about music in general. It's ability to attach itself to the fabric of our lives and hold the key to some of our strongest memories.
TW: That’s it and thanks for your time, Dweezil.