Zappa Plays Zappa

Touring the Roxy, the Pabst, & Elsewhere
by Sal Serio
August 2013

Dweezil Zappa

Dweezil Zappa

Zappa Plays Zappa returns to Wisconsin with a new tour, celebrating Frank Zappa’s classic live ‘Roxy & Elsewhere’ album. In advance of the September 8th Pabst Theater concert in Milwaukee, Maximum Ink had the opportunity to speak with band leader Dweezil Zappa. [author’s note: Zappa Plays Zappa is also performing the “Roxy & Elsewhere 40th Anniversary Tour” at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Monday, February 17, 2014.]

Maximum Ink:  Are there plans to release new original Dweezil music in near future?

Dweezil Zappa:  Yeah! There’s a project I just finished working on, that will come out in a few stages. I do a music camp called Dweezilla, and this year I invited other guitar instructors to be a part of it, and we did a comprehensive guitar course. In years past, just my band would teach, and you could have drum, bass, keyboard, [or] saxophone lessons, but this year was only guitar. I used that as an opportunity to collaborate with some of the people that I invited to be guitar instructors. So, there will be a Dweezilla guitar release, and the first installment of it will have four songs on it, I think. There’s music that has sections for seven different guitar instructors to improvise on. My piece of music is called “Dinosaur” and will be coming out, probably, around the same time as the tour, or may come out in time for the October tour.

MI:  I’m in Madison, Wisconsin, and I’ve been in contact with Joe Guzzo, from Chicago, who had played with you at the Barrymore Theatre last December, and he was a student at one of those Dweezilla guitar summits. Do many other players like Joe come and join you on stage, when you’re on the road?

DZ:  It really depends. Joe has become a friend of mine, and he’s had some previous experience with live playing. It wouldn’t be out of the question to have other people come up and play. There have been other students that live in other cities, and when we tour and end up there, I’ve invited them to play with us. I will, at random sometimes, just pull people from the audience to come up and do something with us, too. One of the last times I did that was in Idaho, there was a kid in the front row who couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11. He had his very specific rock ‘n roll style clothing on, ‘cause he knew he was going to a rock show, so he dressed himself up right. I asked him if he played any instruments, and he said he played the drums. So, I told him to come on up and we put him behind the kit, and did a little improvisation, and he was actually really good! (laughing)

MI:  At that Barrymore show last December, I was there for the sound check, and it looked like a lot of work. You were kind of teaching the group some songs that I don’t think you’d done for a long time, and also orienting Joe to what he was going to be adding to the show later. Is it distracting doing that kind of work with the fans out there watching it?

DZ:  Some days I really just have to work through the sound check, and we’re not able to do much of a thing that [has] a specific presentation for the people that come early, but it all depends. Some people don’t know what it’s really like, and they like that little inside look to see how the band operates. Sometimes we’ll actually play songs at sound check that we won’t play in the show, so they’ll get a sneak peak at something. But, sound check performances typically are very loose, ‘cause we don’t have everything all completely set-up yet.

MI:  Along the same lines as what you were saying about pulling that young guy out of the audience to play drums, was it strange at all when you were a teenager and your Dad (Frank) would bring you out on stage to play the guitar solo?

DZ:  It was something I always looked forward to, but it was also really nerve-wracking, because I really had no previous experience with playing in front of an audience. So, it is weird if the first time you’re playing in front of an audience is a rather large audience. That was something to get used to, but it was definitely something I enjoyed.

MI:  When you were growing up, did you have the same appreciation for your Dad’s music as you do now?

DZ:  I always enjoyed it, but having learned how much of it was created, and how it all works on so many levels, having studied it and played it for almost a decade now, I would say my appreciation for the music continues to grow, mainly just because of my exposure to the deep inner workings of what it is. It’s really been quite fascinating and very educational.

MI:  Do you think the musical consciousness of 2013 is any more in tune with Frank’s music, as compared to the years he was alive and playing?

DZ:  You can’t really make any kind of qualified statement about whether or not any other time in history there was more, or less, openness to it, but ultimately I think the music is timeless. Music in general, anything, can become popular, if it has exposure. The challenge is, how [to] get exposure for his music, or any other music that’s not geared towards an 11 year old.

MI:  It’s the 40th anniversary of ‘Roxy & Elsewhere’. To you, what’s so special about that recording?

DZ:  That record has a great combination of all of the elements that make Frank’s music really signature.  I mean, he has a specific way of using rhythmic motifs that he will attach notes to. It’s a very different composing style than your typical rock chord progression, or anything like that. On [‘Roxy & Elsewhere’] there are some very intricate and sophisticated things, but [also] some really groovy, fun, and quirky elements as well. The combination makes it a really fun record to listen to, and learn to play. The hardest song, by far, is the “Be-Bop Tango”. On that one, a lot of people listen to it and think, “Oh, it’s just random noise”, [but] no, it’s very specific and difficult rhythms [used] to create this angular 12-tone melody. Even though the melody was never played on guitar, I’ve learned a portion of it on guitar, because on the record timbre changes halfway through, and different instruments come in to bolster the melody. So, given the instrumentation of our band, to recreate that sort of textural change, I had to learn parts of it on guitar. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to learn, because the melody is so disjointed sounding, it’s best described as trying to memorize the phone book out of sequence. It’s a really hard thing to wrap your mind around, because the melody is tricky, but the rhythms, and where they come in, are the entrances for the parts.

MI:  That song also featured George Duke, who recently passed. Do you have any special memories regarding George?

DZ:  Besides his musical contributions, I didn’t have a chance to spend a whole lot of time with him on a one-on-one basis, but in 2010 we did a concert with him. He played with us on five songs. We are in the process of finishing that DVD, and I recently just put up a clip from it, the song he co-wrote with my Dad, “Uncle Remus”, on my website and YouTube, that is in honor of his accomplishments, musically.

MI:  Will there be any special guests from the original recording showing up at any of the dates? Chester Thompson, perhaps?

DZ:  He lives in Nashville and played with us on “Apostrophe” the last time we played [there]. He’s great. It’s possible, if we’re in the same town, that [someone] might sit in, but this is not music that you just get up and play, if you haven’t played it [for a while].

MI:  And then the whole tour ends in December with a three day run at the Roxy.

DZ:  Yeah. There are actually more dates after, that go in to 2014, but we are going to do some shows at the Roxy in December, which, for at least one of the nights, will be 40 years to the day. So, that’s pretty cool.

MI:  I would guess that would maybe get documented in some manner, given the historical context?

DZ:  We’ll try! It’s a challenge; it always costs money to do these things.

MI:  The new Gibson “Roxy” SG guitar is out now. With only 400 made, it will undoubtedly become a collector’s item. What’s unique about that guitar?

DZ:  As far as SG’s go, the neck shape is slightly different than some other versions. It’s a little flatter, and the guitar is set-up to have extremely low action, so it’s very easy to play chords and solo on. It makes the guitar very accessible for any style, but it has some other tonal characteristics that make it stand out in a way that SG’s don’t normally do. It’s got a couple switches on it that change the sound of the guitar. For example, you can have it in a single-coil pickup sound, more like a Fender Stratocaster, and you can flip another switch that will knock the pickups out of phase with each other that makes this really mid-rangey, hollow, quacky kind of sound that’s similar to Brian May from Queen. It ends up having an octave overtone in it, as well. That kind of sound, with a heavy mid-range distortion, is really one of the most signature sounds of Frank’s lead playing, particularly in the 70s. That guitar, and set-up, makes it easy to achieve that kind of sound and be more evocative of his actual playing.

MI:  Why did Frank’s SG have the white headstock?

DZ:  I don’t know how it ended up being the blonde headstock like that! The early pictures of the original version of that guitar, it starts off as an SG Special. It would’ve had P-90 pickups, which are single-coil pickups, and a different kind of bridge than what’s on it currently. So, he must’ve liked the neck and the feel of that guitar, because he ran it through a bunch of changes. It had a black headstock originally. It’s interesting, because he probably could’ve had a guitar made, right from the get-go, that did what he wanted to do with it, as opposed to having a Frankenstein creation where it was constantly being worked on and modified. It changed pretty drastically from what it started off as, [ending] up with different pickups, different switches, and a totally different bridge that has the vibrato tailpiece, whereas in the beginning it just had a stock tailpiece.

MI:  Earlier you mentioned the challenge of playing “Be-Bop Tango”. Is there any of Frank’s material that you have not yet covered, that you’d really like to, but there’s just too much difficulty in recreating it?

DZ:  We typically don’t have as much time as we would need to really dive in to some super-complex things. We have played some very difficult pieces of his over the years, things like “G-Spot Tornado” and “Dog Breath Variations”. We were playing “Strictly Genteel” on the last tour. Frank’s band typically had three months to rehearse before they would even do a single show, and we typically have less than three weeks to rehearse before a tour. On the ‘Roxy’ album, they were playing that material for a year before they recorded that, and the tempo of the “Be-Bop Tango” on there, to get specifically up to that tempo straight out of the gate is probably not going to be possible. We’ll have to play “Be-Bop Tango” at a slower tempo, which also makes the melody a bit more understandable. The fact that they played it as fast as they [did] is pretty ridiculous. That’s what Frank would call “road chops”, ‘cause he would, at times, make certain songs have ridiculously fast tempos. Like, “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing” and “Echidna’s Arf”, those are already fast songs, but he played those at some blinding tempos sometimes.

MI:  Have you ever had a Desenex Burger, or tried to smoke the tapes?

DZ:  No! The answer is definitely no for those, but we’ve been talking about that stuff in the monologue, ‘cause to really play this and give people a feel for the record, we’re going to incorporate all of those elements within the improv things that happen there, but we’re also going to leave it open to our own folklore that takes place while touring. So, there will be many audible cues that will be familiar from the monologue-type stuff that exists, but there will be some new material that may be specific to that night, or that venue, or that audience. Which is what he did, you know.

MI:  Well, I’m definitely looking forward to it! Thanks for your time, and see you in Milwaukee.

DZ:  Cool. We’re looking forward to it as well. We have a new drummer named Ryan Brown, and he’s playing great, so there’s a new energy within the band itself. It should be a fun time, and I don’t recall having been to [the Pabst Theater] yet.

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