Dweezil Zappa: The Blues of Euclid
The son of Frank and Gail Zappa, Dweezil Zappa was born on September 5, 1969 in Los Angeles. It was inevitable that from the moment of his birth his life would be filled wall-to wall with music (his father having listed his religion as “musician” on Dweezil’s birth certificate). Dweezil’s early years were spent largely away from the spotlight—something of a rarity for the child of a celebrity, but perfect for cultivating a close relationship with his family. Having watched his father perform concerts from the side of the stage since he was in diapers it was no surprise that he began to show an interest in music early on. At 6 years old he received his first guitar, a Fender Music Master from his dad.It wasn’t until he was 12 that he began to show a serious interest in manipulating the instrument to make music. Having primarily heard the music his father was working on or listening to at home while growing up, Dweezil soon found himself exposed to some new sounds on the radio. Besides his father’s music he began listening to the Beatles, Queen, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. Like many aspiring guitarists of his generation, Dweezil ‘s ear was caught in a stranglehold by the trailblazing guitar styles of Edward Van Halen and Randy Rhoads.
To gain more fundamental knowledge of technique and scales Dweezil was fortunate to have some assistance from one of the musicians in his father’s band at that time, Steve Vai. Dweezil became remarkably proficient in a very short amount of time due to his intense practicing sessions. Later that year he recorded his first single, “My Mother Is A Space Cadet”, produced by Edward Van Halen and released on Frank Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin label. In 1984, Dweezil contributed guitar solos to both “Stevie’s Spanking” and “Sharleena” on Frank’s album Them Or Us. In 1986, Dweezil made his debut in Hollywood as an actor with his role in the classic 80s film “Pretty In Pink.” 1987 saw Dweezil raise his profile further with another film role alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mick Fleetwood in “The Running Man.” In television he worked as a guest MTV VJ. During that same period he recorded and released his first full length album, Havin’ A Bad Day. This album contained the single “Let’s Talk About It” which featured Moon Zappa on vocals and found itself on regular rotation on MTV. The video featured cameo appearances from Frank Zappa, Robert Wagner, Don Johnson and Jane Fonda as well.
Around this same time, Dweezil made his own cameo appearances on records for a variety of diverse artists. He played a solo on the Fat Boys “Baby You’re A Rich Man” as well as on the Grammy Nominated cover of “Wipeout” with Herbie Hancock and Terry Bozzio from the “Back To The Beach” film soundtrack. He was asked to join Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt in contributing guitar performances to Miami Vice star Don Johnson’s solo album. While Dweezil actually played on the song “The Last Sound Love Makes” it was his appearance in the video for Don Johnson’s single “Heartbeat” that would most notably link him to the project. 1988 saw Dweezil sign a deal with Chrysalis Records, releasing his second album My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama. More TV work followed in 1990 Dweezil and Moon Zappa starred with Laverne And Shirley legend Cindy Williams in a sitcom for CBS titled Normal Life. With the release of his third album Confessions in 1991, Dweezil began to branch out musically, blending his heavy rock approach with touches of his father’s distinct compositional insignia. Guest appearances on this album pointed the way toward the future for Dweezil, including contributions from Nuno Bettencourt , Gary Cherone and Pat Badger of Extreme and legendary guitarists Warren DeMartini, Steve Lukather and Zakk Wylde as well as Frank Zappa sidemen Mike Keneally and Scott Thunes. Both Moon and Ahmet Zappa also added vocals to the album. Dweezil conceived and directed 2 videos from the album, ‘Gotta Get To You’ and ‘Vanity’ both of which featured Robert Wagner as a guest star. Robert Wagner has appeared in 4 of Dweezil’s videos as well as the “Music For Pets” infomercial spoof.
There were a handful of live shows played to support the Confessions album. That tour saw the band develop a unique set of skills and usher in the birth of a remarkable non stop medley that grew to contain 200 songs performed in 20 minutes. After completing the Confessions tour Dweezil formed a new band and project with Ahmet called Z. Armed with a mountain of material and no permanent drummer the band entered the family owned rehearsal space called Joe’s Garage and rehearsed with several different drummers who ended up playing on tracks for the new album. Those drummers included Terry Bozzio, Mark Craney, Toss Panos, and Tal Bergman. Rather than move to a studio they set up for recording rehearsals. The band recorded over 3 dozen tracks at Joe’s Garage. The “Shampoohorn” album was completed in 1992 but awaited it’s release over a year later. It was eventually released with 2 different track listings. The band featured Mike Keneally and Scott Thunes and initiated it’s new permanent drummer, Berklee School Of Music-trained drummerpar excellence Joe Travers before departing for a world tour. Thunes departed later in 1994 and was replaced by Bryan Beller who had attended classes at Berklee alongside Joe Travers. The band toured the US and Europe in 1995. They played original material as well as some more oddball medleys including the infamous “Peavey Medley.” In 1996 they released a follow-up album, Music For Pets. By the time of the album’s release, both Beller and Keneally had left the band and Z gradually ceased to exist. Dweezil stayed in the public eye however with several projects including composing the theme music for the Emmy Award winning Fox television show “The Ben Stiller Show” and on camera TV appearances including taking the role of Ajax in the Klasky Csupo animated series Duckman and a TV series for the USA network called Happy Hour which he starred in alongside Ahmet.
2000 saw Dweezil issue his first solo album since 1991’s Confessions… with the release of Automatic. By this time, Dweezil’s musicianship had come full-circle as he showed off his guitar virtuosity with eclectic all guitar orchestrations of “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch” and “Hawaii 5-0.” In 2003 More television work came about as Dweezil formed a band for the WB unconventional improvisational comedy “On The Spot” and performed live in each episode. He also composed the theme music for the WB series “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment” and composed dozens of tracks for the music library Extreme Music. Many of these track are heard on various television shows around the world. The next several years saw Dweezil preparing to take on an extremely difficult challenge—bringing his father’s legendary music back to the concert stage. In 2006, some indication of what could be expected surfaced with Dweezil’s next solo album Go With What You Know. The Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa band’s current 2014 lineup is known as the “rocking teenage combo.” Now a 6 piece they are firing on all cylinders propelled by the ryhthm section of Ryan Brown on drums and Kurt Morgan on bass. Boundless energy is contributed by the rest of the line up which includes original core member multi-instrumentalist Sheila Gonzalez, as well as multi-year veterans Chris Norton on keyboards and vocals as well as vocals/brass/miscellaneous from Ben Thomas. He has also participated with the likes of Jazz legends Mike Stern and Lee Ritenour in the top notch Crown Of The Continent guitar festival in Montana. 2014 marked the inaugural Frank Zappa scholarship at the festival. Dweezil plans to return to “Montana soon…” to participate and contribute to future COC events. 2015 marked a milestone for Dweezil’s Zappa Plays Zappa project. The band has consistently played concerts around the world for the past 10 years. Racking up well over 1,000 shows. In that time Dweezil did not have a time to cultivate his own music. November 27th 2015 marks the release of Dweezil’s first new album since “Go With What You Know” in 2006. Dweezil Zappa has returned to his musical roots with his new CD release Via Zammata’. Fusing analog tape and tube guitar amps alongside surprising instruments such as fretless guitar and the oud, Zappa draws you into his intimate, and multifarious musical world. Armed with unexpected vocal arrangements that sound like the Beach Boys procreated with the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, this collection of 12 uniquely orchestrated songs represents a true metamorphosis for Dweezil Zappa the solo artist. The album was produced and arranged by Dweezil Zappa and features songwriting collaborations with Frank Zappa and venerable actor John Malkovich.
Dweezil found himself in the midst of some controversy and family drama after the passing of his Mother. The Zappa Family Trust, now operated by Dweezil’s 2 younger siblings, fired off a cease and desist letter to Dweezil. The letter required Dweezil to immediately stop using the name Zappa Plays Zappa. In response to the letter from the ZFT, Dweezil changed the name of his band to Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa and continues to tour playing his father’s music for appreciative audiences worldwide. Dweezil’s proudest accomplishments are as father to his two daughters Zola Frank Zappa (born 2006) and Ceylon Indira Zappa (born 2008). He lives in Los Angeles with his daughters and his lovely wife Megan whom he adores.
Interview by Michael Limnios
Transcription by Katerina Lefkidou – Photos by Dweezil Zappa Archive/All rights reserved
I would like to ask you, what do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past?
Dweezil: The music from the past, which would be, the music from the 40s up to the late 70s, or early 80s, let’s say, is that at that point, music and the way it was recorded was based around the skill of the musician and capturing the performance the musician was able to make. So, there was the language and the interplay between the musicians that was sort of a story-telling act; it was about textures and creating the right arrangement and choosing the right instruments and, like I said before really capturing the performance of those musicians playing together. Once technology made it possible for a set to be recorded separately and in a production, elements of music changed to stable that style, it took way that the interplays between musicians in the music of today is done largely with computers, while nobody is playing together and everything being hyper realized in a way that doesn’t sound natural. To me, what I miss most from the past is the musicianship and the story telling of the musicians actually playing together, the drums and the bass and the guitar and how everything fits together.
You have so many experiences in life and in music, what have you learned about yourself through that?
Dweezil: I think from all of the things that I’ve learned over the years about music and working with people to play music, one thing is that I love to remain curious about what is possible; I’m always working for new things and trying to learn more about different styles of music to incorporate with them in different ways, so if I have learned anything about myself in the process is that I still enjoy the learning and being a student of it all and being curious.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Zappa music from folk, jazz and blues to classical, progressive psychedelic and beyond?
Dweezil: When you think about my dad’s music having the variety of styles you mentioned, all sometimes in one song, I think that it sometimes comes from a certain curiosity to do something that breaks the boundaries and understanding that people put boundaries sometimes for no reason. (laughs) My dad actually had a mode of operation you described, anything for anytime for any reason at all and I think that if you like music you can find things in different styles that appeal to you. So you might like the attitude of an electric guitar in blues music and you might like the sound of a string session and the rhythm from Indian music or Turkish and then say: “What would it sound like if I put all those sounds together in a song?” That’s the kind of stuff that my dad would do. For me growing up to that as the predominant music I was ever exposed to, so when I heard regular pop music I thought to myself: “Where’s the rest of it?” Why aren’t there instruments or different rhythms? So it really depends on what you’re exposed to and what your preferences are, but to me it’s just normal for all of those things to add together…
I saw at your Twitter account written: “husband, dad, musician”. What do you prefer and what is more difficult for you? Husband, dad or musician?
Dweezil: Well the musician part has is own challenges, but those are probably less difficult than balancing daily life, being a husband and a father. That takes way more patience and attention to detail than music does.
What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?
Dweezil: I think that there’s degrade of more people having an exposure to the history of music, so that there could be more appreciation of all the things that have come, since popular music started to be available. It’s important for people to recognize the artistic element of the creative process not only from the music side, but from the record/producing side, as there are so many things about the way sound is captured on record, a tribute to our enjoyment of music, so there’s a lot of the history being lost, because nowadays, there’s emulations of things and techniques that were used to create stuff, where you just press a button and it just does a bunch of work for you. So in the future, nobody remembers how it is to actually put the microphone, or how to capture a performance. We’ve all lost a great deal of information, so a part of my fear for the music of the future is less and less exposure to the creative process of all the things that came before, so people kind of dumb down music overall, because people only deal with what is current and the most current music is mostly some of the least creatively interesting music. That’s the disappointment. There’s room for so much more creativity, yet the avenues for getting that out there are so narrow. People just kind of push the most popular stuff. That’s the challenge of it all.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine; Where and why would you really want to go?
Dweezil: There would be a couple of different eras to check out, if we could make a few stops on the way. It would be interesting to be able to check out different civilizations that started to really excel at music. If you look at the “golden age of composers” we will have Mozart and Beethoven and all that, it would be interesting to see how they did what they did and how they got to where they got. It was so relatively new at that time, it would have been real steps of genius, because really who was doing that, a handful of people that could write notation and play stuff on instruments, it was like virtuoso stuff, when some of these instruments weren’t even 40-50 years old. Things that had been recently invented, or whatever you know what I mean? So that kind of stuff would be interesting or going all the way back to the invention of the first string instrument, things like the oud or something, I think that instrument is a thousand years old. So to hear somebody play the oud and be really good at it a thousand years ago that must have been such an amazing thing, like who could do that? But if we’re talking about most recent history, I certainly enjoyed seeing my dad’s concert as a kid and with the knowledge that I know now of the music, I’d love to see that stuff again.
One of your names is a greek name, “Euclid”, “Ευκλείδης”. What do you know about your greek bloodline, has Frank told you about it?
Dweezil: Well when we tried to look at some of our family history, most of what we found is that it was rooted in a little area called “Partinico”, but I do know that there are Zappas in Greece. I’ve been to Greece one time and somebody told me there’s a big park, called Zappas Park, or something like that?
Michael: Yes, Zappeio Park.
Dweezil: Yes, and there are some Zappas in Greece that I didn’t so far find a specific connection, but I’m imagining that, I mean you know the Mediterranean things are very close by, in Greece there’s got to be some people that have a familiar connection.
What is happiness to you? What does happiness mean?
Dweezil: I think that I’m happy with the simple things in life, in my family, my wife and kids, when stuff happens that everybody recognizes, small things, where people support each other, they just do things naturally and show they care about each other.
What is the impact of your music, what is the impact of Zappa’s music on the political and sociocultural implications?
Dweezil: Well my dad was much more political than I’ll ever be, that’s something a lot of people appreciated about him. His music isn’t necessarily making music as political as his own political opinions and statements as I’d thought of his music, but I think it’s important for people who are artists, people who are creative that can speak or create something that possibly has a difference in changing perspective on things, or telling the truth when the truth may be hidden from the popular. So I think that, that kind of stuff can be very important in music, but to some people it’s also a turn-off, some people don’t like music being politicized, “I am listening to music to get away from all of that, I just want to relax”. So me personally, I don’t do a lot to make political statements in my own music, just because I do sort of enjoy music as music.
What does characterize your music philosophy, how do you describe your sound and songbook?
Dweezil: In my own music developing, I’ve made a handful of records, very few comparing to my dad, as you know my dad made over 65 records in his lifetime and I think I’ve made about 10. (laughs) But the process of making music has changed for me because I used to be much more specifically inspired by the guitar, revolved around whatever was happening on the guitar within my music, but my experience now is I’ve become much more knowledgeable about arranging and working with other instruments. I have much more of an interest in music that I would write about how you put all the pieces together from the different instruments working an ensemble and make music that has that interplay. That’s what I love about my dad’s music, it’s that essentially orchestral music that is used in orchestra or rock and it’s arranged like orchestral music, so for me future projects will reflect more my experience of dealing with that kind. For example, I’m actually doing two concerts in Holland in November where I’m working with the Dutch National Orchestra which is a hundred piece orchestra and they’re going to be performing some of my own orchestral music, so we’re going to do a world premiere of that music and we’re also going to play some of my dad’s music and one piece from Steve Vai. It will be an exciting experience to hear an orchestra, especially a large orchestra like that, play some of my music.
The new album has the title “Live in the moment II”. What do you prefer and what is the difference between a live and a studio session?
Dweezil: There’s a very different thing that happens when you’re in the studio. Live on stage you don’t have any ability to stop and redo a part and you don’t have time to second guess what you’re doing. Your job onstage is to perform music; help the audience have a good time and sort of get away from whatever their daily stress is. They’re coming to enjoy themselves so, you’re in a performance mode and in a different head space. In the studio there’s the knowledge that you can fix stuff so you perform or play differently because you become hyper critical of everything that you’re doing, instead of just capturing the performance. It is possible to capture a performance in the studio, but you have to sort of turn off that hyper critical side of your brain and just kind of go in there and have fun. Sometimes you might even need to bring people into the studio to have some type of an audience, so that it will trick your brain into a performance, instead of critical thinking. But I like both sides of the process; I do like being in the studio and being able to experiment with sound that you can make and get really extreme detail from, but it is much easier when you record your live performances to say “Okay, I sort of give up. I’m gonna just go with what this is.” That’s the performance. It is what is is. Sometimes there’re great performances that get captured, that you would never be able to do in the studio, it’s just the musicians playing together in that moment and thinking only about playing the music and nothing else.
What was the best advice your dad ever gave you?
Dweezil: He said “Don’t be an asshole”. (both laughing)
And what is the best advice that you could give to the new generation?
Dweezil: Another quote of my dad is that the mind works like a parachute; it doesn’t work unless it’s open. So you know, sometimes it’s hard to communicate with people and you need to keep an open mind and be able to see different perspectives on things. When people are too narrow minded a lot of bad stuff can happen.
You have jammed with many musicians and big personalities. Which meetings have been most important as an experience for you?
Dweezil: I have had a chance to play with a lot of different great musicians, it’s been various times in my career. Early on my first experience was playing onstage with my dad; that was very exciting but also very nerve-racking. It’s a shame I don’t have the ability to do it now because I would have so much more fun and do so much more. I’ve great experiences, being able to see certain musicians play up close like Edward Van Halen, when I was 12 years old I had just learned how to play guitar, I got to see him play up close and it made a huge difference on how I approached the guitar. In some of our own concerts I’ve been able to play with musicians like Chick Corea where he was playing keyboards and we were trading off solo ideas, that was something on a totally different level. I’ve been able to play with some great drummers, played with Vinnie Colaiuta who played with my dad, that’s been really fun, and Terry Bozzio, lots of great things. Also I’ve played with a big brass ensemble in Norway, called the “Norwegian Wind Ensemble”. That is where I started to play with that giant sound along with a rock band.
What has been the hardest obstacle to overcome as a person and as an artist and how has it helped you become a better musician?
Dweeezil: I think I’ve always tried to keep all that stuff in perspective in a really simple way, whatever I set out to do I want the music to speak for itself, so if that means work really hard to learn how to do something, I’ll put the time in to do that. I’ll let that work speak for itself so for me, I don’t mind doing some hard work to change technical things about how I play if it’s gonna pay off in the long run to make more things possible and be better overall. So, I’m not afraid of doing hard work and I think that just keeps it simple; there’s really no obstacle you can’t overcome if you put your mind to it.
What would you like to ask Frank Zappa?
Dweezil: Oh, that’s too many questions. There’s so many songs that we’ve learned in his music and the idea of ow did he even come up with it to begin with. That’s a question that comes to mind many times. Cause it’s his music that I love so much, he’s got many compositions where you hear and you say wow, this is one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard and this was the only thing he was able to accomplish. This would stand head and shoulders above the rest; you’d find dozens and dozens or over hundreds of those kinds of examples, so he wasn’t able to achieve that greatness once, but he was able to achieve it over and over. To me, I would be curious to know how he was able to write so much stuff with so much depth and variety without repeating himself.
What is your dream and what is your nightmare?
Dweezil: I don’t know, ultimately I tend not to focus on the negative things, so I follow things that I would enjoy being a part of. I like things that are simple and easy and people get along and music is fun. That’s the dream: “Hey let’s keep it simple”. As far as the nightmare I choose not to think about those things because I don’t want to attract that to my wife. (laughs)
What is the moment that changed your life the most?
Dweezil: I’ve had a lot of great moments that have impacted my life in many positive ways. I don’t know if there’s any one thing that has changed it the most. I think as far as music goes, how many have had the opportunity to play with my dad and learn from him and watch what he did in the studio and onstage, that’s definitely something that influenced me the most but there’s other musical things that were great; Like I said seeing Van Halen play early on, when I was just starting to play guitar, that had a big impact. But outside of that, it’s the basic things in life; enjoying your wife and kids and the things that go along with those basic things in life, that are important and need to be appreciated.
Mr. Zappa you were born in ’69 you are now 47 years old now. Is it easier to write and play music as you get older?
Dweezil: It depends. I think I have more knowledge of what I want here and I have more knowledge of how I can make it happen, so those things can work to make things easier but they can also make things complicated, because if you know you want to hear something really complicated and you know how to do it, then you’re going to go down that path and think “What would it sound like if I did this and this?” And I combine a bunch of elements. If you know a lot about your craft then you can make it easy for yourself or you can make it complicated, it depends on your mood I suppose.
The first of my last two questions is: “What makes you laugh from Frank Zappa, what memory makes you smile?”
Dweezil: There’s so many, but I think one of the things that was really fun was, we played a game that was about trying to create words that should be in the dictionary but aren’t. So, the way the game worked is you would suggest a situation that needed to have a word, for example there was one time we played and I said we need to come up with a word that would describe the type of person that only ever wears a rock’n’roll T-shirt. And without even thinking about it within a nanosecond my dad said “Insignoramus”, which is a combination of the word insignia and ignoramus. So it was the perfect way to say stupid person with logo on shirt. We played games like that, but it was always sort of a creative part of it that was really fun. He was really funny; he would do things that are interesting and funny at the same time.
And my last question, if you like you answer, if not you don’t. After the project “Zappa plays Zappa”, the new project is “Zappa versus Zappa”. How strong do you feel about your name?
Dweezil: Well the thing is my name was given to me by my dad so the challenge that I faced was going forward in music now, with members of my own family trying to block me from using my own name and that’s not a fun situation to be in, that’s pretty silly. I think a lot of time and money is being wasted on their part for trying to block me from using my name, it’s preposterous for members of our own family to claim that they own your first and last name and that you shouldn’t use it to play music or identify yourself.