Dweezil Zappa on How Learning Frank Zappa's Songs Was Like "Getting a Lobotomy And Then Training For the Olympics"
When this project originally began in 2006, a number of the members in the band were either members of original Mothers of Invention or Zappa band members. Is that still the case?
On that tour, I had a core band that was all unaffiliated [with Frank Zappa's bands], but then we added a few alumni because we didn't know if we'd be able to do it on an annual basis. [Maybe] it was just going to be one time around. And we were getting a lot of pressure from promoters to have that type of thing, but that never was really part of the original plan. It never was about playing with former members, but showing that the music could be played by people who had no previous affiliation, and still do it well. Once we did that one tour, I did change it so it was more about the core band.
I saw the video of the first Zappa Plays Zappa concert. You mentioned having to spend some time learning the music. You were already a really good guitar player, so was it just nailing the intricacies of it or the complex arrangements that took a while?
It was a number of things. Obviously, I had to familiarize myself with the music and the specific parts that I was going to play within the arrangements. But learning those parts meant learning new techniques that I wasn't familiar with, and mainly because some of things I was learning to play on guitar were written for keyboards and marimba. Those instruments are laid out completely different than a guitar. It meant I had to find an elegant solution for the problem of playing these parts. It required completely changing how I would attack the notes as far as picking was concerned.
This was back in 2004, essentially two years before we went on tour, and what I did was take everything I had already known about playing guitar for more than 25 years at that point and just said, "Forget that. I'm going to do it a different way." I had to reprogram all my instincts for playing to learn a new technique. Since then I've been further developing that. Every tour, it's been a continual process to try to keep expanding what's possible so I'm not playing the same ideas and same things over and over. It really was the equivalent of getting a lobotomy and then training for the Olympics. A crazy, crazy process.
You talk about expanding your sound and techniques, but when you're re-creating your father's music, is it verbatim, or is there room for you to expand upon what he created?
People have to understand that Frank's music, the way that he composed it, is much more in line with the way a composer would write for an orchestra. He used a rock band as an orchestra. The parts were all developed to be in specific arrangements. The orchestra's job is to perform the works on the page as the composer wrote them and carry on that tradition and arrangement as the composer wrote them.
The orchestra is basically a cover band. I use that analogy because a lot of people think when you're covering rock you're supposed to change it, modernize it, do all these things, and that doesn't necessarily improve it. It doesn't do anything other than say look what I can do to this music. And that's not what I'm trying to do with Frank's music. I'm not trying to change it.
But within his music there would be open parts. He would write specific music, but then there would be sections that were meant to be improv. So the improvisation sections change every night. If you saw the same show every night and we played the same songs, it still would be different because the improv would be different every night. To that extent, that's where the changes and development as soloists come into play.
Even so, I still will take many of the ideas my dad would use. Sometime I'll play his solos note for note, or take phrases from them. I want to keep it in context. I don't want to play a solo and have it go too far afield from what he would have played because then it wouldn't be in context any more. I'm just trying to learn enough of his vocabulary so I can use it as guideposts and then fill in the blanks in between.