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Zappa Plays Zappa revives sounds of the future, Dweezil Zappa says

Dweezil Zappa, Frank Zappa’s son, founded Zappa Plays Zappa to introduce his father’s music to younger generations. The band plays Tuesday, Sept. 29, at Crossroads KC.
Dweezil Zappa, Frank Zappa’s son, founded Zappa Plays Zappa to introduce his father’s music to younger generations. The band plays Tuesday, Sept. 29, at Crossroads KC. File photo

When he founded Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006, Dweezil Zappa had a few goals in mind.

Foremost, he wanted to bring the music of his late father, Frank Zappa, to a new generation of music fans. Initially, however, the show took another tack.

“The goal at the beginning was to give younger generations a chance to experience the music live,” he said. “We didn’t know whether we would be able to do it on an annual basis or continual basis. So the first time around, some alumni were part of the show. That was something more the promoters wanted.”

He had something different in mind, however.

“My view of the whole project was to send out a young band with no previous affiliation playing with Frank and play for newer generations. As it turned out, we were able to do that on a regular basis and bring that to life.”

Zappa Plays Zappa will perform Tuesday night at Crossroads KC. Zappa talked to The Star recently about the project and his upcoming album, which will include a collaboration with his father.

Why was attracting a new generation of fans to your father’s music such a priority?

Here’s one way to put it in perspective. At the time we started doing this, my dad’s core fans, even the youngest set of them, were in their 60s. We’ve been doing it for almost 10 years now, which means that set is in their 70s or 80s or not around anymore. The clear motivation was to reach a younger generation, people in their 40s, 30s and 20s. And we’ve seen that over the past seven to eight years. The number of younger people has increased dramatically. That’s been the goal all along. Those people didn’t get to see Frank.

This is no nostalgia revue. I describe it as music of the future because there’s nothing like it. We play the music the same way orchestras play music of composers who are 300 years old.

How much of his repertoire have you conquered?

That’s tough to say. He made over 80 albums. Some is completely unplayable by humans. A couple records are completely computer-generated. Of the stuff from most well-known albums, I’ve lost track, but it’s somewhere over 450 songs. They run through every decade of material.

And we aren’t able to play all of it at the drop of a hat. The stuff is super-hard. The most we can retain, depending on how long we’ve been rehearsing and performing, is about 30 to 35 songs. At one point, when we were rehearsing and touring a lot, we had about 60 we could switch between. But the material is really complex, and if you’re not playing it all the time, you can’t remember it.

Are you able to change the set list each night, or does it have to stay the same?

We do what Frank did. Some stuff that we rehearse is all segued together so we can move pieces of the show around and drop in new songs here and there. That’s what we’ve always done.

It becomes a challenge to make a show different every night. A lot of programming is involved in terms of creating sounds for songs, so you have to put them in sequence so you can find them. It’s more beneficial and the show runs smoother when everything is organized and you know where to find your sounds.

Are you completely faithful to your father’s arrangements, or do you give yourself space for reinterpretation?

The improvisational sections are improvised every night so various elements of my personality come out. But everything else is dictated by what’s on the page. When we don’t have it on the page, we do really accurate transcriptions, even to the point of taking master tapes out of the vault and transcribing what’s on each track. To that extent, I don’t do anything to rearrange or change the music. My addition of playing guitar on certain melody lines written for keyboards or marimba may give it a texture that is slightly more rock, but we don’t change the arrangement.

There’s a song called “Bamboozled by Love,” and it’s the only example I can think of where I did something different. Frank did two versions, one very slow tempo, one fast. I took both versions and put them into one song. But even there I ended up using what Frank had already done. But I never take something and say, “Hey, look what I can do.” It’s not what I’m interested in. I want people to have an apples-to-apples comparison.

Do you have a favorite era of his music?

I grew up watching him make music in the early ’70s. So initially the majority of what we learned and performed was from 1973 to 1980 or so. That was the most active period where I saw him work on stuff and went to shows. That era has records like “Apostrophe,” “Bongo Fury,” “Over-Nite Sensation” through “Joe’s Garage.” That’s still my favorite era.

You have a solo album, “Via Zammata’,” coming out in November. What can you tell us about it?

I’ve been trying to get into some other things. I’ve been learning some Eastern and Arabic music scales and learning to play the oud. So there’s some of that on the new album.

There are a couple of other things. I did a collaboration with the actor John Malkovich, which is a crazy piece of music. And I also co-wrote a song with my dad. It’s the only collaboration we’ve ever done.

What’s that song like?

He gave me some lyrics in 1988. At that time, there was a lot of metal on the charts, but it had become really comical. So he wrote a joke about heavy metal. What I decided to do was lay another layer of joke into it. I made the music sound dead serious. It’s super-heavy, kind of like Black Sabbath meets Iron Maiden.

I don’t think real heavy metal fans will get the joke, it’s so embedded in the style they won’t notice it. But the average person will probably see all the jokes on the surface.

Can you give an example of the joke or parody?

There’s a line in the song that goes “hate the day, hate the light.” In a certain heavy metal vocal style, the singer will add a syllable to a word. So the line goes (sings): “Hate the day, hate the light-TAH,” with that extra syllable on “light.” So there are things like that in there. It’s part of that world, so it’s all legit.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.


Zappa Plays Zappa performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Crossroads KC, 417 E. 18th St. Tickets are $25-$66.50 through A VIP/sound-check ticket is available for $90.