Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Artist's Profile: A conversation with Dweezil Zappa

My friend Mike Brown is a BIG Frank Zappa fan. He has a huge collection of Zappa's music and actually saw him in concert back in the 80's. (Frank passed away from prostate cancer in 1993). I had of course heard of Frank Zappa, but freely admit that I knew very little about his music. What I did know was that he was a very prolific composer over the course of his 30+ year career, he was an amazing guitarist, his music did not sound like anybody elses, and his kids had very unusual names like Moon Unit and Dweezil. (Frank's other children are named Ahmet and Diva).
Anyway, in June of 2010, Mike asked me if I wanted to go see the Zappa Plays Zappa show down at Grinders in the Crossroads District here in KC? "Huh? What is ZPZ" I remember thinking. As I soon learned, Frank's son Dweezil is an accomplished guitarist in his own right. In 2006, Dweezil formed a band to perform and tour his father's music. So off I went with Mike on a sweltering June night to hear something new, and I was completely impressed and won over by what I heard. Dweezil is a guitar virtuoso. I am an aficionado of fine guitar playing in any genre...Segovia to Wes Montgomery to Django to Pat Metheny to Roy Clark to Van Halen to Pete Townshend....and so on. I love the instrument and the personalities of the "guitar world". Dweezil has a guitar technique and facility that puts him in the highest order of guitar heroes. Simply amazing. And his band is equally talented. They played a 2+ hour set of music I knew very little about, but became very interested in learning more about after the show was over. I began reading about Frank Zappa, listening to his music, and watching performances and interviews on YouTube. I learned that he was heavily influenced by classical music, especially Stravinsky, Ravel and Varese. There is great video of his first band, called the Mothers of Invention, playing an excerpt from Stravinsky's Petrushka, and another video of him conducting a large ensemble playing Ravel's Bolero. I found these fascinating. He composed many works that were classical in form and style, albeit his own unique style, as well as music that spanned the boundaries of classical-rock-blues-jazz-fusion and the avant garde. Frank Zappa's music was not "mainstream". Dweezil is dedicated to bringing his father's music to new generations of listeners. To quote him from an interview a few years ago, "Frank's music is very contemporary. If we are trying to attract a newer audience, which I am definitely determined to do, I want younger people to be interested in it and exposed to it". He also said "I want to stamp Frank's imperial mustache on the glabrous dome of the music industry". 
As I read this, it hit me that I was trying to do the same thing with classical music. (not the mustache part...the attracting newer audiences part) One of the reasons I started this blog was to help others discover the joy and enrichment of classical music. Dweezil and I are both on missions to enlighten and educate. 
Mike and I went to see Dweezil and the ZPZ tour again in 2013, and once again enjoyed a tremendous show. I'd kicked around the idea of trying to talk to Dweezil for this blog, and finally reached out to him through his website, and was eventually contacted by his publicist and given the opportunity to have a phone interview. Here is how that conversation went:

TH) Thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me. I really appreciate it. Was classical music something you heard as a child growing up?

DZ) I listened to whatever my dad was either working on in the studio or listening to when he was relaxing at home, so there was a varied amount of music; his own work, when he was writing any of his music, generally speaking, he considered it all to be classical music, and he was using a rock band to be the orchestra when he wasn't actually working with a real orchestra. Most of his compositions were constructed that way because as a kid he wanted to be a composer. He went to the library and taught himself everything about music by reading about it. Around the house I also heard different kinds of folk music from different countries. But yes, there was classical music. I remember the modern compositions…. one time he asked if I wanted to listen to something with him…it was a piece by Stockhausen. We listened to it and I didn't get it…I was probably 10 or 11, and it didn't really sound very melodic.
TH) Very atonal probably?

DZ) Yeah, and he said “do you like this?” and I said “not really” and he said “me neither”. But he got very into 12-tone music towards the end of his composing, and he was very interested in what he called note densities and chord densities. He was writing a book on all of that but he never completed it. But a lot of the note density and experiments he was doing with that became most of his synclavier music.

TH) He spoke in an interview I watched on YouTube about the tone colors and voicings of chords that were possible with an orchestra and the harmonic languages an orchestra could create…it was more rich and dense than what a 4-piece rock band could do. Do you have an interest in classical music today…do you have time to listen to it?

DZ) Over the years I have listened to a lot of it….I appreciate Bach and Mozart especially…that stuff is fun to listen to and cool. How they figured it out is amazing...and then for someone to actually be able to play it…even more amazing. The stuff I tend to like is because of my father’s music. Growing up I would hear my dad’s music, and I didn’t really hear any other stuff on the radio, but by the time I did when I was 12 or 13, I thought..."where’s the rest of it?”. There weren’t enough instruments or information in pop music. I thought “there’s got to be stuff missing here”. And so the things I tend to like need to surprise me with texture and rhythm because that’s what I was used to in my dad’s music and that’s what I have grown to appreciate. There are also film composers and film scores that I have enjoyed as well for some of those things…textures and rhythms. I like the stuff that John Williams has done over the years, and I listen to it off and on…it’s the background of my formative years.

TH) Have you been doing any composing?

DZ) I haven’t had time to do too much writing of my own for quite some time because ZPZ takes up so much time to keep the material learned. I’m hopefully going to make a record of my own later this year. I am planning to write an orchestral piece as well. I started it awhile back but I haven’t finished it.

TH) Do you play the keyboards as well as the guitar?

DZ) I do not. It’s a funny thing about how I decided to write this piece. I am not good with the actual notation so what I do is take a MIDI project and I will type in 5 minutes worth of the same note and the same rhythm and then I will start moving it around and make shapes with it. So when I hear things I like, I can create arpeggios and/or melodies and I can build around it. I can also target particular places on a time grid where I want something to happen so I can have an overview of the piece and start filling in the blanks that way. So instead of having a blank piece of music, I am throwing the notes on the page like throwing paint on the paper, and then you start seeing what you can make out of it. The piece I’m writing is based on that plan of attack.

TH) Are you scoring it for a small chamber ensemble or a larger symphonic group?

DZ) I am not exactly sure how it will end up, but I intend to play it with the band and an orchestra. We are already trying to do something next year where we play with smaller ensembles…there is a wind ensemble in Norway that is very good and they have done some arrangements of my dad’s stuff so we’d like to do some shows with them. Beyond just a wind ensemble, I’d like to also have strings and percussion. We already have a show planned in Denver in April next year with between 8-10 extra players from the Denver Symphony.

TH) I’d love to hear your own music this way.

DZ) There is one thing I did on a record that came out in 2006 and it has a short orchestral bit. It was my first foray into using a computer to create some of those kinds of sounds. It doesn’t have the human feel I would like (I am not the world’s greatest programmer of MIDI) but I put it on the record anyway. It’s a tune you might be able to find….most of my work is not available yet on iTunes, but you can find it on YouTube. It’s called “Rhythmatist”. The intro to it is called “Preludumus Maximus”. That’s the piece that has a classical “feel”. I’ve done other things that are classical related. I made a record called “Confessions of a Deprived Youth” and there’s a song called “Earth”…the intro on that is all guitar but it’s like a Mozart sounding kind of thing. It’s only been with the band I made for Zappa Plays Zappa that I’ve gotten into more ensemble playing. Most of the stuff I did before that was guitar oriented.

TH) Do you ever play a classical guitar?

DZ) Only marginally. I’m not very good with the finger picking. I’ve been trying to learn a little bit of that and incorporate it. Most recently I’ve gotten into learning how to play the oud. The only nylon stringed instruments I have are an oud and I have this other thing called a glissentar which is basically a guitar that is made to be like an oud. It’s a fretless nylon stringed instrument where the top E through low A are doubled, unison strings, and the low E is a single string. It’s a really fascinating instrument.

TH) You talked once about your dad’s music being “from the future”, and how contemporary it is. I totally agree with you. I hope that you can continue to find your own voice as a composer.

DZ) The record I’m making this November has taken an unexpected turn. I think I’m going to actually make a record that’s mostly vocal tunes in order to have an opportunity at a broader audience. And then I’m also going to make an instrumental record that goes basically into outer space! I didn’t want to combine the two because it would become, as many journalists like to say…"unfocused” (laughing). I think I will learn some things along the way and figure out what I want to do. I’ve done all kinds of things over the years that I never had a chance to actually release. I had forgotten that I transcribed and played two pieces by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir for guitar. It’s a “guitar orchestra” version of these two pieces. I had totally forgotten about doing it and I heard a tape of it the other day and thought “oh my God”. It was pretty cool. It might appear as a transition between some things. I’m definitely interested in blending some multicultural sounds. For example, that instrument I was telling you about...the glissentar…it has the sound of an oud…that ancient thousand year-old instrument. But a thousand years ago they didn’t have Fuzz Tone! (a guitar effect).

TH) or Wah Wah pedals!!

DZ) Yeah. Combining a nylon-stringed, weird instrument with some Fuzz Tone is where the weird experiment will begin.

TH) Are any of the musicians in your band classically trained?

DZ) The keyboardist took some classical lessons as a kid. And our bass player studied composition in college, so he is quite knowledgeable about orchestral music. He’s the one who goes through all of the scores we have at the house…anything in Frank’s hand or anything done by a copyist…he goes through it to make sure it’s all correct.

TH) Did I hear you say once that you didn’t read music?

DZ) I’m not very good at it. I can sit down and do it, but it takes me so much longer to learn something that way then it does for me to just listen to it and play it.

TH) That is phenomenal! I don’t see how you can learn some of the incredibly fast guitar passages in your dad’s music that way.  For example, I watched a video of you playing a fast passage from “Inca Roads”…. it’s too fast to hear!

DZ) You have things you can use to slow things down. But as a kid, I wanted to learn all those really fast things from Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads. And before there was any technology to slow it down in real time I would just have to press “rewind” a million times, learning one or two notes at a time. So I’ve grown accustomed to picking things out in small pieces. It’s a challenge no matter what. One of the pieces we did in ZPZ recently was one of my favorite classical pieces of my dad’s called “Strictly Genteel”. We played that a couple of tours back. The crazy thing about learning music like that is it might take me a month to get something down that was never meant to be played on guitar. There was a passage for piccolo flute and I learned to play it on guitar and created a sound that was in the right register and it took me several months just to get this one thing down. We’re talking about 3 seconds of music or less. Then you have the other hours put in for learning the rest of the hard parts. The crazy thing is I spend all that time learning to play it on tour, but the moment I don’t play it for even one week, it disappears!

TH) I remember the days of trying to learn songs from a cassette player….rewinding over and over, and you could never get the tape to the exact spot each time.

DZ) It was even worse if you were trying to do it from a record!

TH) Are you coming back to KC on your next tour?

DZ) I’m hoping to get a Midwest run next year on the tour that starts in April.  The date will be on my website soon. We may be looking for opportunities to play with some smaller ensembles…maybe you could connect us with some musicians! We are planning to tackle one of Frank’s most poly-rhythmic pieces called “Sinister Footwear”.

TH) My buddy Mike Brown and I will be waiting for you! Thank you for your time and good luck on your projects and upcoming tour.

DZ) You bet. Thank you too.

Here is a link to Dweezil's website: http://www.dweezilzappaworld.com/

A video of Dweezil "shredding" a guitar solo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3YrDHNqx3c

ZPZ with Steve Vai joining them on a Zappa classichttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLXVWjs5ozA

Dweezil's Album "Go With What You Know". "Preludumus Maximus" starts at 13:15 into the video : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3agEcpiA08


  1. Great blog, Tim! Awesome interview. Can't wait for the next tour.

    The Real Mike Brown