Dweezil Zappa's Choice Cuts
The outspoken guitarist brings variety to The Variety
As the mission statement for his Dweezilla musical boot camp says, Dweezil Zappa's goal is to "shatter boundaries and preconceptions." In over three decades of music and performance, he's stuck to this ideal while remaining intensely focused on his own musical individuality - as viewed through the prism of his considerable history and lineage. His mantra is obviously genetic. His dad was Frank Zappa the iconoclastic and staggeringly prolific musician who challenged every known standard of musical composition and performance.
Even as his latest crowdfunding campaign supporting the use of his own last name has completed, he remains at odds with the estate as he embarks on a new tour. Previous outings have found him examining suites of his dad's material and promoting his own catalog of original, progressive rock music. His most recent studio release Via Zammata' remains one of his best, most diverse collections yet.
For this journey, he's offering a varied look at his many influences in a show called Choice Cuts, deftly blending the very best of Zappa - Frank and Dweezil. INsite caught up with the outspoken guitarist during last year's "Cease and Desist" tour.
You've been releasing your own music for over 30 years now. What has been the most drastic challenges you've seen in both writing and releasing?
Writing wise, when I first started, I was focused around what the guitar would do, that was the main thing. Now it's the song itself, the structure and coloring in the lines. The guitar doesn't have to be the main feature now because I have all these other musicians who can bring different colors, textures and timbres and that frees me up to do whatever I'm doing. That's how it's been while I've been busy playing my dad's music. That's the way he operated. He used the band as an orchestra. So the transition to working that way opens up so many more possibilities for me. And at the same time, it frees you up to be able to just create a feeling for the song, something that the listener can really connect with.
You and your dad have both released some great album-length listening experiences. Does it bother you that the trend has shifted back to the single track?
Well that's been around for so long in pop music, even when they went for the teen market with Elvis and beyond. But the experience of listening to a whole album has definitely died out for current and future generations. It's not considered a foreground piece of entertainment much anymore. The goal used to be to create a focal point with music, a real listening experience.
Popular music has always been disposable, but now the shelf-life seems shorter than ever.
There's a cloying kind of aspect to it and I think there are less people with the skills to make music, to listen to it, or even to be very competent recording artists. Now it's instant gratification. And the more people are desensitized to computer music, the less likely they can appreciate people who can actually play. There's such a big difference between the human touch and a computer. Sometimes people prefer the computer because it can sound more perfected. But that's not what actual people sound like. You have generations of kids who are really unaware of what they're missing. Some things my daughter listens to is completely unlistenable to me.
But you know people have been saying that for years. It's generational.
Well at the dawn of rock and roll people were terrified, they heard this rebellious music and it was like, 'Oh what happens if the children start to think for themselves?'
You were born in 1969, a very tumultuous time for music and society. Actually past the peak of your dad's greatest '60s material. Kids of today need to hear that stuff and maybe wake up a little.
It's a strange time for a lot of things now, obviously political-wise, but music-wise too. My dads' music is oddly still prescient. It's like he was the rock and roll Nostradamus, predicting so many things. Many of his statements of music are still true today. Like it's ripped out of the headlines.
Exactly. It's like a wickedly astute capsule of cultural observations.
He's really the only person I can think of who was saying so much about the social situation. He created it to be entertainment, yes, but there was definitely a message in there. He wasn't this guy up on a pedestal preaching to everybody. I think he was really just showing all the sides of stuff. The stupidity, the challenging ideas, all of these things.
Exactly, if he'd just preached it would have been soundly rejected.
He did it in a way that was like an audio movie. Not as, 'Here's a thing with three chords and I'm gonna tell you how to think.'
Which makes the fight for the Zappa name seem all the more ironic. It's not a brand, it's your last name.
It's stupid. The idea of supposedly protecting the name by trademarking it [to use for marketing] is just preposterous. Just listen to a song like "Cosmic Debris." Is that a song about a guy who wants to have yoga pants with his name on them?
People need the challenge of music like Freakout (1966) for example. I bought that in high school when I was exploring improvisational jazz. That listening experience is a timeless challenge for anyone who appreciates music as a true artform.
It's like, imagine an 11-year-old goes into a record store with money he saved up from a paper route. They happen to select Freakout by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. 'Oh, this for me!' They bring it home and put it on. They're a little bit scared but mostly fascinated. Then of course the parents come in and take the record away - or even destroy it - because they're so terrified by what's coming out of the speakers. All these sounds. There wasn't really distortion until then so compared to everything else that came out in 1966, this was from outer space. Now it still sounds like it's from outer space. Nobody even got close to what Frank was doing and that was over 50 years ago. You can still play stuff from that record and it still sounds like it's from the future. It's fresh new ideas and they're five decades old. I always tell people, 'If you haven't heard something it's new. It doesn't matter if its 50 years old or ten years old or two. It's still new music.' People get so hung up on this idea that, 'Oh music is not valid unless it's current, unless it's from right now.' You can enjoy music from any year at any time.
That's the worst possible sort of ageism.
Yeah. Well my dad had a great quote, 'The mind is like a parachute, it doesn't work unless it's open.' When people are walking around with blinders on, they're gonna miss out on a lot of things. There's a definite lack of respect for what came before us.
When you were growing up, did you pay attention to Frank's music?
When I was growing up it was really the only thing I heard. By the time I heard the radio when I was 12, it seemed like there were so many instruments missing from the sound. I thought to myself, 'Where's the rest of everything?'
Diversity is the mark of great music â€“ of his and yours.
Well there's only 12 notes you can use in Western music and it's how you arrange them. My dad just had so many ways of doing it that don't sound anything at all like what he did before. It's very impressive that nothing really sounds alike. But some people hear that and go, 'Oh it's unfocused.' I'm like, 'No, it's called variety.'
Dweezil Zappa plays (whatever he wants) at the Variety Playhouse on April 7. Choice Cuts performance at 8 p.m. with a Masterclass matinee at 3 p.m. For more information, please visit variety-playhouse.com.