Outside Now: A Conversation with Dweezil Zappa, Part 1

Last month I interviewed Dweezil Zappa; I wrote three features based upon that interview: one each for papers in Chicago, Richmond and Pittsburgh. But even with that, a great deal of our conversation remained unpublished. Today and tomorrow I present this feature, which combines those three and adds additional content from our interview – bk.

dweezil_zappa01What’s in a name? Quite a lot, if you happen to be a superb rock guitarist who – in addition to making original music of your own – performs the music of your late father, one of the 20th century’s most important and controversial composer-performers. Dweezil Zappa has found himself at the center of intra-family squabbles over the rights – and obligations – associated with the music and estate of Frank Zappa. Under these circumstances, which are playing themselves out in a very public fashion, it’s a challenge to stay focused on music. But that’s Dweezil’s objective.

The controversy centers around disagreements with the Trust (run by siblings Ahmet and Diva Zappa) on one side, Dweezil and his sister Moon on the other. From Dweezil’s point of view, ZFT is making unreasonable demands for a share of the profits from his touring and merchandise sales. The disagreements have been shared via “public letters” published first by Ahmet on behalf of the Trust, and then in the form of similarly public replies by Dweezil. “Behind closed doors, we didn’t get anywhere,” says a clearly exasperated Dweezil. “So it doesn’t really matter one way or the other whether it’s public or behind closed doors.”

“The behavior and the intent of the Zappa Family Trust is as it appears,” Dweezil says. “I offered them the deal that going forward, if I was going to tour, that they could sell ZFT merchandise, and I would split it 50/50 with them. Which I didn’t have to do. They turned it down, favoring 100% for themselves. When you have negotiations like that, you can see you are not going to get anywhere.”

The disagreements extend even to the way in which guitarist Dweezil brands himself and his tour. For several years he performed under the banner Zappa Plays Zappa. That didn’t sit well with Ahmet and Diva – neither of whom tours or performs themselves – and so they demanded a name change. “I changed to ‘Dweezil Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa,’” Dweezil explains. “They sent me a cease-and-desist letter. And rather than keep playing that game I changed the name of the project just to my name.” And in a move that might have brought a wry smile to his dad’s lips, he’s calling the tour “Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever The F@%k He Wants: the Cease and Desist Tour.”

All that aside, the current tour features Dweezil’s accomplished band playing the late Zappa’s music, with a few of Dweezil’s own tunes put into the mix. Longtime Frank Zappa associate Ike Willis will be joining the tour; Willis played guitar and sang on some of the elder Zappa’s most popular albums, including 1979’s sprawling Joe’s Garage set.

I interviewed Ike Willis in 2011; he told me then that he had wanted to play with what was then called Zappa Plays Zappa, but that “anything we wanted to do would have to be approved by Gail [Zappa, Frank’s widow, who died in 2015].” Dweezil confirms Willis’ account. “Gail had what she called ‘The Shit List,’ and there were a ton of people on that list. And Ike was one of them. But now, flash forward to where we are, and to where I am personally. I’m outside of the Trust at this point. So, anything is possible. Working with Ike or other people that I want. The tour is called “Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever The Fuck He Wants” it might as well be also “With Whoever He Wants.”

With Willis on hand, Dweezil’s band is likely to sound even more like his dad’s groups; the impossibly intricate music demands staggering instrumental proficiency as well as a willingness to take part in a kind of controlled musical spontaneity.

dweezil_zappa_via_zammataBut Dweezil does more than pay tribute to the work of his dad, who died of prostate cancer in 1993. Dweezil’s latest album (his sixth under his own name) is Via Zammata’, a stylistically varied collection that veers between the technically knotty style for which the elder Zappa is known, baroque semi-classical work, and straight-ahead pop-rock. In its own way, Via Zammata’ is every bit as much a musical assortment as the body of work Frank Zappa created during his lifetime.

He explains that the album’s name comes from a street in Partinico, Italy, from which the Zappa family emigrated to the US. “I had a chance to go to Sicily and visit that location,” Dweezil says. “It was the experience of following your family tree and getting a little bit of the overall history of ‘where do you come from?’ And so the record itself is kind of like that.” He says that while the songs are varied, they’re also linked in a way. “The elements of production and background vocals and all those things, that’s all stuff I grew up with, listening to so many records: my Dad’s records, and other records back in the day. Records from the 60s, 70s, 80s, whatever and they all had a lot of background vocals that helped create the overall feel and harmony within the song. I just wanted to express those things that I always enjoyed in music.”

Dweezil is proud of his own music, and there are clear echoes of Frank’s composition style in his son’s work. Dweezil doesn’t shy away from that fact, accepting that he’s going to get some criticism either way. “When I started playing music and making records, people would say, ‘It doesn’t sound anything like Frank!’ But it would have been just the same if I tried to make records that sounded like my Dad when I was 15: ‘He’s trying to do stuff like his Dad, and falling short!’ It’s all that kind of b.s. that would have been part of it,” he says. “But I never paid attention to any of it anyway, ‘cause I was just making music.”

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