Dweezil Zappa has been fully focused on keeping his father Frank’s legacy alive for more than a decade. An accomplished player in his own right, Dweezil’s devotion has seen him delve deep into the catalogue of one of the most respected musicians in history. Currently taking 1969 classic ‘Hot Rats’ out on the road, Dweezil’s attention to even the minutest detail is commendable; “there’s a lot to learn in terms of the nuances of the music, but it’s also the sound design and production”, he reveals. We sat down with the guitarist to talk the intricacies of the task, working with Ozzy Osbourne, and his role in ‘The Running Man’. Want to buy a hot stereo?; Eamon O’Neill
How are you today Dweezil?
I’m doing well, thanks. Today is a day off from the tour, and the day is just beginning, so I haven’t done hardly much at all!
What do you tend to do with a day off?
It depends. A lot of times on my own tour, I usually do very little because my own tour has a busier schedule and is more taxing and demanding. At the very least I probably go find a restaurant nearby or something, and see what the local food scene is like.
There’ll be plenty of cities to explore when the ‘Hot Rats’ tour reaches the U.K. next year; are you excited to be bringing the show over?
Well, yes. This is quite an operation. To be able to pull off playing the album, there’s a lot to learn in terms of the nuances of the music, but it’s also the sound design and production that we spend a lot of time on so that it can be evocative of the record itself, and that era. In other words; we don’t try to do anything to modernise the music. We try to do our best to present it as close as we can to the sound that it has on the album.
The album is very complex, musically. Was there a lot of work for you and the band in learning those parts?
Yeah, because part of the challenge is, the album is largely instrumental, and there’s improv solo sections, so to make it sound like the album, I had to decide whether or not I was going to learn certain solos note for note, and leave other ones open to improvisational exploration. So, there’s a combination of stuff going on. On ‘Son of Mr. Green Genes’, I chose to learn that one note for note, so I’m playing what my dad played throughout the song, but on ‘Willy the Pimp’, which also has a very long guitar solo, I’m learning some phrases that he played, but then I’m filling in the space between those phrases with my own ideas, but sort of filtered through the vocabulary my dad might have used.
So you’re really getting to the essence of what your father would have played?
The goal is always to be, even if I’m improvising, I want to be able to use a sound that is from the record, and play within a style that is also melds with what was on the record, so it never feels like it’s taking too much of a departure from what it is. I basically try to make sure - at least for myself - that I’m playing in context to the music.
Would you say that your father was a big influence on you, musically?
Well, when I started playing guitar, my dad was always a big influence, but the thing about his playing was that it was so idiosyncratic that it wasn’t the kind of thing that you could look at and go; “oh, I see what’s going on there. I can just do it like this!” You’d have to really, really study what was going on to try to create the same kind of sounds that he was going on. So when I first started playing, his influence was there, but perhaps not totally at the forefront.
Have you had to adapt your own style significantly to play this music, given that it contrasts with the guitar pyrotechnic approach of an album like ‘Confessions’ ?
When I decided to the Zappa Plays Zappa project back in 2006, even before playing any shows I’d been studying the music for about two years. And I changed my playing drastically at that time; technically and from the intellectual perspective as well. That’s still an ongoing process, so I think you wouldn’t hear hardly any of what you described, in terms of the pyrotechnics, because my dad didn’t play that way and his music doesn’t sound as it should if you’re playing in that particular style. Which isn’t to say that I can’t use technical ability; it’s just that I have to use a different vocabulary with that technical ability.
When you take on an album like ‘Hot Rats’, how did you go about tackling learning the material?
What we do as a band is we will seek out whichever transcriptions we are aware of, but we’ll always look at those in comparison to the actual recording of whichever song we’re doing, or whichever album version we’re doing, and we will double check it for mistakes, or things that we hear that are not correct, and then we take it from there. But a lot of the material that we’re doing, we have to do our own transcriptions because there aren’t transcriptions for it. When it comes to the ‘Hot Rats’ material, the transcriptions that exist, there’s a book out there that’s been published for a while, but it has a lot of mistakes, so we’ve gone through it and made corrections. And so, it’s a group process because there’s so much to do, but as far as my stuff, I always learn everything by ear; everybody else is able to read.
Do you feel a huge sense of responsibility to present the music as accurately as possible, and to carry your father’s legacy on?
I always try to do my best with it and present it in a way that is comparable to what he would have done. But some of the differences in what I do verses what he did is; he wasn’t interested in playing songs from a record and making them sound just like the record; he didn’t endeavour to recreate those textures. On tours he would rearrange songs and make them sound different, so what we’re able to do, is to offer fans a look into the familiar sounds of the albums. So, an important album like ‘Hot Rats’ if we were to go out and play it and disregard the sound of it, and modernise it, we wouldn’t have the same effect on people. So when you hear it and we’re playing it as close to the sound on the record, it puts you more in that head space, and it’s just more evocative of the era. That’s an important detail in all of this, and sometimes the sound design stuff takes as much time as learning the songs themselves, because you’re constantly fiddling and improving stuff.
So you spend a lot of time figuring out what amps would have been used in the studio, and that sort of thing?
The layers of sounds that are created on these records, we do research to find out what gear was used down to microphones and compressors and consoles because if we have any information about that stuff, we can actually implement that in the signal process in the chain that people will be hearing. So the front of house guy, if he knows for example that something was recorded on an API console, and there was a DBX compressor or there was a [Universal Audio] 1176 compressor or something like that, we could have a digital version of all of that as the signal processing chain for that particular instrument. So there’s all these layers of sound that we’re recreating to the best of our ability and knowledge of the recordings.
Fans can be really obsessive and almost scholarly about these kinds of details, so you must have had some amazing feedback about the shows.
Yeah, people definitely appreciate the level of detail that we put into it, and they can sense that it’s an important record for us, and generally what we get is; “thanks so much for doing this”. That’s definitely the message that’s been consistent since the first tour.
Going back to your earlier career, and the ‘Confessions’ album featured some notable guest musicians including most of Extreme, Steve Lukather, and Zakk Wylde to name a few.
That was a fun record that I created really quickly. It was done in about two and a half weeks or something, and we mixed it in a few days after that. The band at the time was pretty well rehearsed. We were playing frequently at a rehearsal place, and we were able to go into the studio and track a lot of stuff. But the guests mostly appeared on one song. I did a heavy metal version of the song ‘Stayin’ Alive’ [Bee Gees]. Originally Ozzy Osbourne sang it on the record, but then his record company wouldn’t let it be released for some reason, but they would release it years later on their own compilation record [‘Prince of Darkness’, 2005], which became a weird situation. I think that people are a little bit aware of that story, but the replacement that I got; instead of having the Ozzman, I got an Os-mond, which was Donny Osmond. The idea behind it was to take something that people already knew well and just do something different with it and make it over the top. So it has all these guitar solos from different people like you were talking about. In the studio it was just really fun to be able to happen.
Elsewhere, you appeared in hit Arnold Schwarzenegger movie ‘The Running Man’ in 1987. Well, ‘The Running Man’ was difficult to film actually, because they kept having schedule problems. I was only supposed to work one or two days on there, it was supposed to be a quick thing, but they would never get to the part that they had to film. So, a couple of weeks were going by, and we kept being called in at all hours to these very uncomfortable, dirty locations. There’s a place in California called Fontana, and it’s a bit of a drive from Los Angeles, but if you’re supposed to be there, like, your start time is four in the morning, you’re on a different schedule, and you’re supposed to be putting on really, really dirty clothes, and they’re putting dirt on you, and you’re sitting around for hours and hours, and you don’t end up working, well, a bunch of us ended up getting sick. It’s freezing cold, you’re constantly dirty, and so by the time they got to the point where we were actually filming, it was like; “oh man, I wish it was not while I’m sick”, so everybody was low energy.
Mick Fleetwood also had a small part on the film.
Well, I talked to him a bit on set. I’m a fan of Fleetwood Mac’s music and some of the things that they’ve done over the years, so we talked a little bit about music. But at that time I was, I don’t know, not even 20 years old, so I was not as musically knowledgeable as I am now, so we didn’t have any in-depth conversation.
Have you seen the movie, and are you a fan of it?
I think I’ve seen the movie like once or twice, but I remember seeing the process of film making; at times it’s interesting, and at times, when you uncover the secret behind, that’s when you go; “oh, that’s how they do it?”, and you either like it more, or you like it less. Depending on the situation, you can be disappointed or more intrigued. But I think that watching Richard Dawson [who plays the role of Damon Killian] was one of the more entertaining things, just because I used to see him on that show [Family Feud], and you know, if you think about it now, if he was today doing what he was doing then, then people would be all over him for, you know, the #MeToo movement, the sexual harassment, because he was constantly kissing people, and it was like an unasked for situation.
Back to more recent times, and your 2016 tour had the very snappy title ‘Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants – The Cease and Desist Tour’.
Yes, indeed. Well, it was necessary, but it’s also a good indication that the music that I choose to play is curated however I would like to do it. And I think, particularly on some of the last tours, we’ve gone deeper into the catalogue in places that we wouldn’t have been able to go before, but we’re able to do it now because the line-up of the band has musicians that have the skills needed and the vocal abilities needed to cover all of the territory that we’re going into. In the past, some of the pieces we would have liked to have explored, I didn’t think were going to sound the way they needed to, but as I was able to improve the line-up of the band, we could go further into stuff. When we did the ‘Choice Cuts’ tour, that was a very deep line-up of songs that didn’t have really any emphasis on the quote unquote ‘hits’, but oddly enough it was one of the more fan-favourite tours, because you could really see the band having a lot of fun.
So you enjoyed playing the more left-field material?
I was showing the different layers of what my dad did, and that was always the goal; to give a balance version of everything he had to offer, because the biggest problem was, his music, whenever it did get on the radio, did not represent the totality of his work, so if you’ve heard ‘Valley Girl’, or ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ or ‘Cosmik Debris’, and you think that’s all that my dad did, you’re not able to fully understand things.
Finally, what’s next for Dweezil Zappa?
Just a bit more of the ‘Hot Rats’ tour, and then I’m going to be working on some other things. As I have the opportunity I’ll be able to do some collaborations with people, and I’m working on a couple of TV projects that we’re trying to put together; actual TV shows. So just bouncing around, doing stuff!
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Dweezil Zappa 'Hot Rats' 2019 U.K. Tour Dates
Dec 4, 2019 London Royal Festival Hall
Dec 5, 2019 Manchester Palace
Dec 6, 2019 Southampton O2 Guildhall
Dec 8, 2019 Oxford New Theatre
Dec 9, 2019 Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Dec 10 2019 Leeds Town Hall
Dec 11, 2019 Birmingham Town Hall