There’s a common misconception that Frank Zappa’s music was closer to Weird Al Yankovic’s than Beethoven’s, but those really in the know understand there’s more sophistication in Zappa’s body of work than one might imagine. Granted, with album titles like Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, there was a comedic element, but that wasn’t what Frank was entirely about. The late rock icon released more than 80 albums during his 54 years on Earth, each one written with the intricacies of an orchestral composition. Beginning with his work with Mothers of Invention and culminating with 1993’s The Yellow Shark, Zappa left a lasting imprint on the world of rock ’n’ roll. Since 2006, Frank’s son, Dweezil Zappa, has carried the torch with the Zappa Plays Zappa project by playing nothing but material from Frank’s catalog.
“The one thing about my father’s music that I think has been a bit of a hindrance, in terms of getting across to more people, is it’s really misunderstood,” Dweezil says from his home in Los Angeles. “When I started doing his stuff, I made a point to not focus on any of the comedic stuff. I wanted people to actually be able to hear a whole other perspective of his music, so I focused on what I consider to be his strongest compositions. It wasn’t until about four or five years in that we started to add the comedic stuff into it. So many people think when you’re playing someone else’s music that you have to modify it, and in the case of my father’s music, I couldn’t disagree more. We treat it more like classical music and this is like a repertory ensemble.”
Dweezil was born in 1969 to Frank and Gail Zappa outside of Laurel Canyon, a place his father lived when Mothers of Invention was beginning to blossom. In 1968, Zappa moved into a log cabin on the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain. Routine visitors included Mick Jagger, the Animals, Alice Cooper, Roger McGuinn, John Mayall and the Cowsills. Harry Houdini’s house was across the street and residences of rock ’n’ roll royalty such as Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, the Monkees and Mama Cass lined the musical epicenter. Naturally, the young Dweezil was heavily influenced by his parents’ lifestyle and position in the community.
“When you grow up in your own house, whatever is around you is normal,” he says. “There was nothing that was different that I could judge it by. My dad was gone a lot when I was little, because he was on tour. When he had the studio at home, he was there almost all the time. By the time I was 12 or 13, both of my parents were home pretty much all of the time. That was unusual because other people’s parents were working away from home. The kids at school really didn’t know my dad’s music, because it was a different generation. It wasn’t like there were kids asking me for tickets.”
While many children of famous rock legends want to avoid any direct comparisons to his or her parents, Dweezil has a different outlook.
“I’m a fan of what he did, so I like to embrace and celebrate the stuff,” he explains. “As far as playing the music goes, there’s nobody out there that’s going to care about the details more than me. If you’re going to uphold a standard, you might as well be deeply rooted and connected to it. For me, I never got caught up in thinking about what other people might think. To play Frank’s music is very, very hard. To play it well, it doesn’t matter who it is, you’re going to be able to tell the person has a lot of dedication and proficiency on their instrument.”
Dweezil sometimes takes months to hone two-seconds of one of Frank’s song, especially with more difficult ones like “Black Page,” “Inca Rose,” “G-Spot Tornado” or “Dog Meat.”
“Learning his music is quite the undertaking,” he admits. “Early on, it was much, much more difficult to get it all together because there were all these unknowns. You sort of find a way to create your best learning process. What I had to do early on is completely overhaul my approach to guitar and even more difficult was to overhaul the mental approach. My father’s playing is so unorthodox. You have to have at least some of the same tools he was using to be able to play his music. That was a couple of years of work before I even started doing the band.”
The fact Zappa Plays Zappa stays true to Frank’s music is a testament to his skill level, as well as his love for his father, who passed away when Dweezil was in his early 20s. He still has many unanswered questions, but on stage playing his music gets him as close to his father as possible.
“There’s times where I will play something that will be so reminiscent of something he would do, even though I’m improvising,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll play something, and I don’t know if that was me that played that. The more I dig into the details, the more amazed I am at what he was able to do in such a short amount of time. He not only had all the quality, but he worked at an amazing, proficient speed. Unless people really know, they can’t understand.”
ON THE BILL: Zappa plays Zappa at 7:30 p.m. on April 23 at Boettcher Concert Hall, 1000 14th St., Denver, www.coloradosymphony.org. Dweezil Zappa will also teach a guitar master class at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 23. More information is at www.coloradosymphony.org.