Zappa Plays Zappa: Frank Assessment

By Peter Hodgson

Mixdown, March 2012

It’s been a while since Mixdown caught up with the one and only Dweezil Zappa. The last time we spoke, he was just about to embark on his first Antipodean Zappa Plays Zappa tour. Now he’s returning for his third tour of duty spreading the word of Frank Zappa’s music, including a set at Bluesfest as well as several sideshows. The Zappa Plays Zappa concept is constantly evolving and exploring different eras and facets of Frank’s incredible catalogue. And this year’s tour is no exception.

The last time I saw Zappa Plays Zappa, you played a lot of material from the Roxy & Elsewhere album. Are you focusing on any one particular era or album this time around?

The thing is, there’s so much to choose from. I definitely will be looking at what we played last time to make sure we give everybody a completely different show. But what I think my main focus is for this year, and certainly Australia is really early in the year for us so you guys are getting a look at it before anybody, really – is the depth and variety of Frank’s music across multiple decades. We’re really trying to look at some of the stuff right from the very beginning, like the Freak Out and We’re Only In It For The Money records, and get right up into some more obscure things through the ‘70s that people don’t expect to hear. We’ve been doing ‘Debra Cadaver [Kadabra]’ from Bongo Fury, some really obscure things, to give people a chance to hear them for the first time. We’ve been doing a song called ‘Wedding Dress/Handsome Cabin Boy’, and every time we do that song I’ve asked the audience how many people are familiar with this song. There are literally two to four people who raise their hand! So the thing about stuff like that is, the good news is you get a chance to hear it in a live situation and have it make an impact – and it is a really cool little song with a sea shanty thrown into the middle of it – but the overall message, what I really want to do, is to give people a very diverse assortment of stuff that texturally changes and represents the decades pretty specifically. So when we play a song from the ‘60s it really sounds like a song from the ‘60s. The production details are as important as the rhythms and notes of the songs themselves, and that’s really the character of the songs. That’s been an interesting challenge.

The early ‘80s had some really distinctive sounds too.

We do everything we can to try to recreate that stuff. Where I may differ slightly on the timbre of the instruments is when stuff in some of the 80s things sounds like a factory preset from like a Yamaha DX7 or something. It was new at the time, but it has a very dated sound later on. So, sometimes when there’s material that has some of those kinds of sounds, I try to gravitate to something that’s a little more traditional or authentic to a piano sound or something else. Because in those kinds of situations it has more of an overall organic feel to it.

I was thrilled to see that you’ve been playing ‘Any Kind Of Pain’. That song contains one of my favourite Frank solos ever.

Yeah! It’s a great sound that he uses. That ended up being a trickier one to play over because you can’t hide behind the sound. It’s like, there it is! The thing about that sound is, he’s not playing through anything particularly special there. On that tour he was using a Roland GP8 that I programmed a bunch of sounds on, and that was like a $200 thing back in the ‘80s. But his guitar had that onboard preamp and equalisation and stuff, so he had extra gain from his guitar so it would allow him to really utilise that sound differently than a guitar with different impedance and everything, because it’s hard to get that kind of sustain from a clean sound and compression without getting a tonne of noise. His guitar was set up very differently to a normal guitar so he was able to achieve that sound without a tonne of extra hiss and noise. So it sounds good!

You had to rebuild your guitar technique from the ground up when you started planning ZPZ. Are you still running into challenges from Frank’s music today?

Yeah! We started touring in 2006 but I was actually working on it two years before that, so I’m almost a decade into this stuff! I’m learning new tricks all the time. One of the things that’s been cool lately is that some of the things I’ve always admired in other players, like Allan Holdsworth, for instance – he has these fluid runs, this kind of tension and release around what he’s doing. And Frank built his own tension and release in a way that was even more angular than Allan Holdsworth. And as I grow as a guitarist some of the influences I’ve always had have a chance to be expressed more specifically. We recently did a couple of shows where Allan Holdsworth sat in, and it was fun to play off of him and to pick up on the idioms he was using, and to say “I can use some of this musical language to have this conversation, but I’ll also say my own thing with it.”