Dweezil Zappa is a musician. He never had a choice — his father listed “musician” as the religion on his birth certificate.
As the son of late songwriter and composer Frank Zappa, Dweezil has had a lifetime of exposure to varying influences. Now a “devout” musician, he’s been performing for more than 30 years and he currently heads up the band Zappa Plays Zappa, which recreates the music of his father, a man Dweezil often quotes with: “Progress is not possible without deviation from the norm.”
And Dweezil is certainly deviating from the norm this year. He is wrapping up his first studio album in 10 years, “Via Zammata.” He is planning to tour in South America and Europe, and will be releasing a DVD from his band’s 2010 “Apostrophe” tour. Later this year, he plans to debut a video guitar lesson course via Truefire.com, and he currently offers the Dweezil Guitar Masterclass, which teaches guitar techniques and concepts, before live shows.
Zappa Plays Zappa is celebrating its 10th year touring, and Dweezil and the band will take the stage Saturday at Newport Music Hall.
The Lantern spoke with Dweezil about the current tour, his musical influences and sharing Zappa music with fans.
The Lantern: You’re getting ready to play a college town, here at Newport. Do you get a pretty good mix of people in a Zappa Plays Zappa audience?
Dweezil Zappa: The mix of the audience has changed a lot since we started back in 2006. The first year that we played, we really didn’t know if it was going to be something we would do on a continual basis. The people that came were mostly the core fans that had been there from the beginning. So, you could see out into the audience and it was mostly 60-year-old-plus guys. There’s nothing wrong with that because they’re the people that enjoy the music and know the music and it’s been part of their lives. But we wanted to present this in a way that newer generations would be inspired by it and adopt it as music for their own generation. And over the past decade of doing this, we’ve definitely seen more and more younger people that are getting interested in the music and discovering it through what we’re doing.
TL: Can you tell me about the prominence of music in your early life?
DZ: Funnily enough, I didn’t hear the radio until I was probably 12. We didn’t even have a radio in the house. My dad was either working on his own music or occasionally listening to music from his record collection. So, that was all I ever heard of music: whatever he was listening to or whatever he was working on. By the time I actually heard pop radio in the early ‘80s, I thought, “Where’s the rest of it?” I was waiting for the xylophone and all these tricky rhythms and things like that.
TL: How were you introduced to the guitar, and how did your playing develop?
DZ: My first guitar was a Fender Musicmaster. Frank gave it to me when I was 6, but I didn’t really know what to do with it until six years later. Steve Vai was in Frank’s band, so he actually showed me some of the earliest stuff that I learned, like “How do you hold a pick?” and “What’s the best way to practice scales?” I would just sit for eight or 10 hours, listening to different things that I wanted to try to learn, and I would train my ear to find the note. The first thing I wanted to learn was “Eruption” (by Van Halen), and that is not easy. It took years to be able to actually play it. To this day, I don’t read music. I can technically read the notes on the page, I’m just really slow at it. So, when I learn music, I learn it all by ear, even all of Frank’s super hard stuff.
TL: When was the last time you pulled out the Hendrix Stratocaster? (A rebuilt, and for a time, lost guitar given to Frank Zappa by Jimi Hendrix, then given to Dweezil by Frank.)
DZ: I just played that last night in the studio to wrap up my guitar overdubs. I did a solo on a song called “Nothing.” I played the Hendrix Strat on all the guitar (tracks) for that song, but on the solo itself, I went for a very Hendrix-inspired kind of sound. You can’t pick that guitar up and not give the nod to Jimi. The tone on that is a particularly good guitar tone. It’s just classic Hendrix Fender Stratocaster/Marshall feedback. It just does the thing that you want it to do. It’s just awesome.
TL: What is it about Frank’s music that so many people still connect with?
DZ: Some people will hear it for the first time and fall in love with it, get it and say, “Oh my God. This is the only music for me.” It completely changes what their perspective on what music is and what music can be and nothing else will ever compare to it. You don’t really have the casual Zappa fan. If you do, it’s people who only know songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” or “Valley Girl.” That’s generally the view of the music that I kind of created this project to combat. As history tends to try to rewrite itself since Frank’s passing, he gets relegated to being a sort of novelty act. “Oh yeah. He’s the guy with the jokey songs.” Well, that’s not really at all what he did on over 80 albums. I’m going to emphasize the stuff that really makes his music unique and his compositional achievements.
TL: What makes Frank’s music different or special live, as opposed to the classic recordings?
DZ: With the way the music is constructed, my dad had two disciplines at play. You had the through-composed music that is the hard rhythms and melodies that he would compose that had to be executed as written. But, in many of the songs, he had this other component where there was the freedom to improvise. It’s the most fun and challenging music to play because of those two separate disciplines. My dad really created his own style of music that really could only be called Zappa music. It just doesn’t sound like anything else. To me, it’s from the future.
Tickets to Zappa Plays Zappa’s Saturday show at Newport Music Hall are available at ticketmaster.com. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and concert tickets cost $34.00 with fees. The Guitar Masterclass starts at 3:30 p.m. and costs $85.70 with fees, and VIP Early Entry Soundcheck at 5:30 p.m. is $65.20 with fees.