Zappa Plays Zappa's Joe Travers The Vaultmeister

By Mike Haid

Modern Drummer, February 2008

Joe Travers believes in destiny. He was born into a family of drummers. His grandfather, father, uncle, and cousins all played. His drumming DNA was set in motion at an early age when his father bought him his first kit at age four. It wasn't until his early teens that he began taking drumming more seriously.

Travers began listening to rock artists like Alice Cooper, KISS, and David Bowie, and then got into more progressive artists like Rush, while at the same time venturing into metal bands like Motley Crue and Iron Maiden. But the music that most influenced his drumming was Frank Zappa. This was the music he felt destined to play.

While living in Erie, Pennsylvania, Travers felt the need to leave home and find his way into the drumming world on a larger scale. With financial help from his family, the budding pro enrolled in the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Besides helping to take his playing to a higher level, Berklee allowed Travers the opportunity to establish valuable relationships with other up & coming musicians, which would eventually resurface and help establish his career. He stuck it out and graduated in 1992.

From there, Travers chose Los Angeles as his next destination because, A) he could transfer from the Tower Records store where he was working in Boston, to the store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, B) the weather, and C) he wanted to pursue his goal of being involved with the Zappa family.

Once in Los Angeles, Travers' destiny began to unfold quickly. Within a few short months he was called to audition for the band Z, which featured Frank Zappa's sons Dweezil and Ahmet. He got the gig, and his predestined relationship with the Zappa family had begun. Little did he know that this gig would also lead to his amazing longtime role as the Zappa Family Trust Vaultmeister.

There might not be another drummer alive who knows more about the music and drummers of Frank Zappa than Travers. In fact, his knowledge and love for all-things-Zappa landed him the gig as caretaker and handler of restoration for the sacred Zappa family vault. The vault contains over thirty years' worth of priceless Frank Zappa performances, rehearsals, interviews, and ephemera on video and audio tape, of every imaginable type and format, located in a temperature-controlled room below the Zappa home in Los Angeles. Travers is celebrating his twelfth year as the Vaultmeister, and with so much archived footage to be restored and released, Travers' job seems secure for many years to come.

As his destiny continues to unfold, Travers now occupies the drum chair with his dream gig, playing Frank Zappa's music with Dweezil (not to mention former Zappa alumni Ray White, Steve Vai, Napoleon Murphy Brock, and Terry Bozzio) in the Zappa Plays Zappa project. ZPZ has been several years in the making, and is Dweezil's vision. The project is an attempt to bring his father's music to a new generation, with authenticity and reverence for the original compositions. And, in Dweezil's mind, no drummer is more qualified for the gig than Travers.

With the successful ZPZ tour now in its second year, Travers continues to perform the classic Zappa catalog with a masterful groove that effortlessly floats over the complicated material as though it was all in common 4/4 time. Joe's many years of studying these complex, odd-meter-filled arrangements have paid off with high dividends, as he has now become a distinguished member of the great drummers of Zappa, an honor bestowed on only a select few of the most talented drummers of our time: Aynsley Dunbar, Ralph Humphrey, Chester Thompson, Terry Bozzio, Chad Wackerman, and Vinnie Colaiuta.

Travers has fulfilled his destiny through hard work, perseverance, and a deep love for the music of Frank Zappa. Of course, having the extreme talent to convincingly play this music doesn't hurt Travers' career either. He's also performed and recorded with Zappa alumni like guitarist Mike Keneally and his former Berklee classmate, bassist Bryan Beller (Steve Vai, Z).

Let's dig deeper into the fascinating, everything-Zappa life and times of the Vaultmeister, Joe Travers.

MD: How familiar were you with Frank Zappa's music when you arrived at Berklee?

Joe: I was a huge Zappa fan from an early age. I was self-taught and I knew that I wasn't playing the drum parts correctly. A lot of the advanced polyrhythmic stuff went right over my head. I was able to figure out the odd-meter stuff well enough to play it. But I knew that it would help my career immensely if I attended school and acquired the skills necessary to play things correctly. I could play" The Black Page" from a rhythmical aspect, but I wasn't executing the intricate melodic aspects of the piece.

Berklee helped expose me to a lot of jazz, which I wasn't familiar with because I grew up listening to rock. I really got into all the Chick Corea stuff and the heavy jazz players, which helped develop my musical vocabulary and drumming skills dramatically.

MD: How did going to Berklee help you connect with the Zappa family?

Joe: I was working at the Tower Records store in Boston in 1990 while attending Berklee, and Dweezil Zappa did an in-store promotion for his album in our store. I introduced myself to him and gave him a videotape of a show that I had put together of me playing Frank's music, in hopes that he would pass it along to Frank. I also befriended Dweezil's guitarist, Mike Keneally, who had played in Frank Zappa's band.

Mike Keneally and I stayed in touch, and we met up again a year later at a concert in New York City that featured Frank Zappa's music, called Zappa's Universe. Frank was supposed to attend the show, but was too ill at that point. I met Dweezil there again, and he told me that he had watched the video but hadn't had a chance to show it to Frank.

MD: How did you end up finally working with Dweezil?

Joe: Once I moved to Los Angeles, I immediately started hanging out with Mike Keneally, and we became good friends. Within the first few months, Mike called to let me know that they were auditioning drummers for the band Z, which also featured Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, along with Frank Zappa alumnus Scott Thunes. I passed the audition and stayed in that band for several years.

MD: How did this lead to your position as the Vaultmeister for the Zappa Family Trust?

Joe: The Vaultmeister gig happened in 1995, while I was in Z. I was invited down into the vault one day, because I had been dying to see it for a long time. When I started checking out all the tapes on the shelves, I saw that I was very familiar with the music and the players that were on them. Just from looking at the titles on the spines, I knew I was more knowledgeable about their contents than anyone already working in the vault – even more than anyone in the Zappa family. So Frank's wife, Gail, said, "Great, you're now the Vaultmeister." Z ended in 1996, but I've stayed on as the Vaultmeister. I've also done several recording projects with Dweezil over the years, which has now led to the Zappa Plays Zappa project.

MD: Describe the Vaultmeister gig.

Joe: I absolutely love this job. But there's a lot of responsibility to it. I'm the one responsible for preserving the entire vault of Frank Zappa tapes, making sure that they live on. There's every type of audio and video format that you can imagine, spanning Frank's entire career. Even though the older tapes have been stored properly, they'll only survive for so long. There are precautions that need to take place before I put them on the tape machines, in order to ensure the tape quality before I digitize them.

MD: Can you describe the preservation process?

Joe: I have to heat-treat the older tapes before I put them on the machines, otherwise the oxide goes away from the back of the tape, which could ruin it forever. Once a tape is treated, I can only get a couple of plays out of it before the quality starts deteriorating. Then I document each tape and find out what's already been released from it. From the remaining unreleased material, I help compile music for future releases for the Zappa Family Trust.

MD: How did you learn the skills to treat and preserve the tapes?

Joe: It was basically on-the-job training. I was fortunate to meet Frank before he passed away. I sat with him and watched him do some digital editing on an album called Trance-Fusion, which is now available. I also watched his engineer, Spence Christlu, who took over after Frank passed away. He was using a Sonic Solutions system, and after watching him work for a while, I knew that I could do the job. From splicing tape to digital editing, I learned everything that I needed to know to get the job done, I've been doing this now since 1995, and I believe I'll have this job for a long time.

MD: Tell us about how the Zappa Plays Zappa project came about.

Joe: Dweezil had wanted to do the ZPZ project for several years. Finally, in 2005, it was put into motion, and Dweezil warned me ahead of time that when it was time to do the project, I would be the drummer. Unfortunately it was postponed until 2006. But when it finally came together, it was worth the wait, because we were privileged to have Steve Vai, Napoleon Murphy Brock, and Terry Bozzio, all Frank Zappa alumni, do the tour with us.

MD: Was this your dream gig come true?

Joe: Totally! I've been listening to Frank Zappa's music since I was ten years old. Having the opportunity to officially play it with Zappa family and friends is a dream come true. And having Terry Bozzio playing right next to me is something I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams. Playing "The Black Page" together with Terry, and trading licks back and forth, was completely unbelievable for me. The last two shows of the tour were filmed for DVD release, and it will feature Terry and me doing "The Black Page."

MD: Talk about your approach to re-creating the drum parts for the Zappa material.

Joe: There are quintessential versions of Zappa songs that are imbedded in my skull.

I have to play certain fills just like the record because they mean that much to me. But I don't want it to be the same every single night either. I respect the music and the players that created it so much that I can't deny their influences when I play this music.

There are strong traits to every drummer who originally played this music, and each of them has impacted my playing in some way. Ralph Humphrey was so intricate and creative in utilizing drum parts. Chester Thompson had an amazing groove. Aynsley Dunbar was a powerhouse jazz/rock player.

Jimmy Carl Black was a solid groove player, and I really loved his side-stick playing. Chad Wackerman was unbelievably musical. Terry Bozzio brought the relentless rock to Frank's music. He was a complete animal behind the kit. His double bass technique is etched in my playing. And then there's Vinnie Colaiuta. There was no other drummer who could relate to Frank in a rhythmic sense as well as Vinnie. The places that Frank and Vinnie would go during improvisational sections were from another planet.

It's so inspiring to listen to Frank and Vinnie stretch out. It reminds me of the places that Miles Davis and his famous quintet would go. When Frank and Vinnie played together, the rest of the band would watch and listen in amazement. Ed Mann, the percussionist, would hold up a sign that said, " Where's 1?" Ray White told me that when the guys would ask Vinnie about where the 1 was, Vinnie would answer, "Hey man, 1 is relative!" [laughs] So I try to take a little from each of these incredible players when I approach Frank's music, and give it the respect it deserves.

There are lots of written parts that Frank designed specifically for the drummers, and I always stick to those. Plus being the Vaultmeister allows me the opportunity to hear all of these drummers play the material in various configurations, and I have access to all of the original charts.

MD: How do you feel about being a part of the Zappa drumming family after all your years of hard work and dedication toward reaching this lifelong goal?

Joe: I was sitting on the tour bus last year with Terry Bozzio, telling him how much of an honor it was to be playing this music with him. He put his arm around me and said, " Joe, you're my favorite Zappa drummer." Then he said, " You're the Steve Gadd of the Zappa world." I was speechless. That was the highest compliment that I could ever imagine coming from one of the greatest Zappa drummers of all time.

MD: I can understand what Terry meant, because when I saw you play, you had such a relaxed, comfortable, yet commanding feel for this highly complex material. You made it look easy, and it felt so relaxed and in the pocket.

Joe: One of the reasons I've learned to relax and get comfortable with the music is that these shows are three hours long, and I have to pace myself and conserve my energy to be able to get through the night.

MD: But you've also developed your technique to the point where even the most complex pieces don't look that challenging for you to play. Are there any songs or drum parts that you found almost impossible to duplicate or recreate because of its physical or technical nature?

Joe: Oh, yeah. The parts that are most challenging for me are the heavily composed sections that have completely written drum parts. There's a section in the song " Wild Love," from the Sheik Yerbouti album, which is taken from another piece of music, " Sinister Footwear." It is loaded with complicated rhythms. There are also a couple of different versions; one features Terry Bozzio playing quarter-note ride cymbal through the section, but there's also a later version with Chad Wackerman playing the entire melody on the drumkit. So I tried to do both versions during the tour on different nights. There were a couple of shows where I really butchered it by trying to play the melody on the kit. Those are the things that I have to practice.

MD: Have you had to modify your drumkit in order to perform some of this material?

Joe: Yes. There have been so many different drummers with completely different kits throughout the various Zappa bands. Aynsley Dunbar and Jimmy Carl Black played small four-piece kits. But later in his career, Frank wrote parts for large drumkits. The most obvious of these was "The Black Page," for which Frank wrote a section based on Terry's large melodic drumkit. So I needed to create a kit that could cover all the bases.

My setup is close to what Terry had, which is three rack toms and two floor toms, but with a single bass drum and a double pedal.

I have used a set of bongos and a set of Alpine cowbells that belonged to Frank, and they're the same bells that Ruth Underwood and Ralph Humphrey used in the Zappa bands of the '70s. So when I play them in the songs on which they were originally heard, it's just like you're listening to the record. It's very cool!

This year on the tour I replaced the bongos with 6" and 8" RotoToms, because Chad and Vinnie both used RotoToms a lot in their setups with Frank. I also added a 14" timbale under my hi-hat, just for fun.

DW is making me a kit using their new X Shell technology, which is a cross-laminate shell that delivers a deeper, warmer fundamental note. I'm also using their new 23" bass drum, which gives you a bigger sound than a 22" but without having to push as much air as you would with a 24".

MD: Which of the Zappa drummers do you feel are the most influential to your drumming style?

Joe: Actually, I would have to say that John Bonham is my favorite drummer of all time. When I'm asked who my favorite drummers are, I have to say that they are John Bonham, and then all of Frank Zappa's drummers.

I've been influenced by all the greats, but my favorite drumming has to have feel and grease, and it's got to swing. I feel that Bonham had all of that. Most of Frank's drummers had that too. There are lots of amazing drummers out today that can play things that I could never play. But for me, it's all about making the music feel good and bringing some emotion to the music. All of Frank's drummers had something special to bring to the table.