Bikes are great for smashing trails in Stowe, but Dweezil Zappa’s father, Frank, found another use for them — at age 22, the freak-rock legend played a bicycle on the set of “The Steve Allen Show” in 1963, using a bow dragged across a bike wheel’s spokes to render scrapes of sound.
Frank Zappa is renowned for such offbeat soundscapes. The 62 albums he released during his lifetime include such classics as “Apostrophe,” styled simply as “’”, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” and “Hot Rats.”
Frank Zappa’s son, Dweezil, says no one’s playing the bicycle during his Choice Cuts! World Tour, but he promises to showcase some of the deepest-buried tracks in his father’s body of work.
Frank Zappa died in 1993, and the Choice Cuts! World Tour is the latest installment of 12 years of Dweezil Zappa channeling his father onstage.
Zappa says this tour might include some numbers that cause even die-hard Zappa fans to scratch their heads, confused.
“When we go out and tour, we’re always faced with the problem of what should we present to people? There’s nothing that really qualifies as hits, per se. We just try to get people a really wide cross-section of the music, and this particular tour is as deep as we’ve ever gone,” said Zappa, who’s 48. He began “making noises” when he was 6; his first guitar was a gift from his dad. He didn’t take it seriously until he was 12, and made his first onstage appearance with Frank’s band.
Later that year, he recorded his first single, “My Mother Is A Space Cadet,” produced by none other than Eddie Van Halen, who played the song’s opening riff.
“My own music is very different now than when I first started,” Zappa said, not only because he’s spent more than a decade trying to master his father’s fiendishly difficult music, but also because he’s spent time working with classical symphony orchestras.
“If you would have asked me 10 years ago, 20 years ago, ‘Hey, do you think you’ll ever be writing music for an orchestra?’ I would have said, ‘What?’” Zappa said with a laugh.
During Zappa’s show April 14, though, fans can expect to hear mostly Frank’s stuff. And that’s good, because Zappa reckons most of his fans overlap with his late father’s massive fan base.
“I think anybody can be a Frank Zappa fan. They just need to be exposed to the music and see that there’s something for everybody,” Zappa said, although he divides his dad’s fans into two general categories.
“People who have very high-pressure jobs that are really detail-oriented, such as scientists, airline pilots and people who have big responsibilities and need something that can relax their minds and entertain them with multi-layered music. There’s that type of individual,” Zappa said. “And then you have some of the, for lack of a better term, maybe anti-social types, who are highly opinionated and want to be in an exclusive club, you know? …
“Out of all of that, there’s a common denominator, which is that once the people have heard this music, it’s the only music they prefer. They get very deep into it,” Zappa said.
Even people who have plunged deeply into Frank’s catalog might be surprised by some of what they hear April 14, Zappa said — he and his band will play the jingle Frank wrote for the Remington electric razor, for instance, as well as a version of the song “Florentine Pogen” that was only ever played live in 1974.
‘Training for the Olympics after having a lobotomy’
While Frank Zappa’s music was funny, and it was intended to be — one song is about two brothers lighting their farts on fire in their father’s garage — Zappa says it’s also intricate and extremely challenging, and that sometimes gets lost in his father’s sense of humor.
“There’s all kinds of elements that approach that sort of depth in his instrumental music and his guitar playing,” such as a piece called “Dog Breath Variations,” Zappa said. “There’s also a connected piece that’s called ‘Uncle Meat.’ When he put them together, it was called ‘Dog Meat.’ That composition, while it has a funny title, is one of the most amazing pieces of music ever written, in my opinion. There’s a few of those that are in the show.”
Every time Zappa tours, he works harder to get into his father’s more difficult music.
“I had been studying the music for two years” prior to the first tour in 2006, he said, and he still finds some of it challenging.
“There’s a song called ‘Inca Roads’ I learned to play on guitar that was never meant to be played on guitar. There are sections on there that I had to completely change how I played guitar. I would have to practice a part that goes by in a few seconds, probably, 10 hours a day for months at time to get it up to tempo,” Zappa said. “It’s like training for the Olympics after having a lobotomy. You just have to sort of really dig deep.”
This tour, Zappa is helped by a band he says is the best he’s worked with yet, including a female singer, Cian Coey.
“She’s got a tremendous range, and so she can do all kinds of things with her voice,” Zappa said. “We have her as like a secret weapon on a lot of songs. For instance, my dad had Tina Turner sing some backup parts. Cian can recreate that texture,” Zappa said. He’s going for the sound of “swallowing razor blades” while singing.
“When we play those songs, they’re able to evoke that character. Some those songs, we wouldn’t have played in the past, because nobody can make it sound right,” Zappa said.
“This version of the band is far more capable of re-creating every single vocal style that is across my dad’s whole catalog, and that’s really been the biggest key to bringing about the possibility of playing some of the music that we’re currently playing, and some of the stuff from the ’60s all the way through the rest of the catalog. We can really dig deep, because now we have all the tools.”
Growing up Zappa
Zappa says he wasn’t exposed to pop music for the general public until he was almost a teen.
“I didn’t hear the radio until I was 12. I only heard my dad’s music and what he was listening to recreationally from his own record collection while growing up. When I heard the radio, I thought, ‘Where’s the rest of it? Where’s the other instruments?’” he said, laughing.
“The thing is, I never suffered from that sort of standard thing that you hear about where kids are embarrassed by their parents, or not in synch what with their parents like. I was always really inspired by what my dad did. My friends, they would come over and it was like going to Disney Land. There were always instruments around. You could hear music being played. It was just a really cool, creative environment,” Zappa said.
He has two daughters from his first marriage, and his 2012 marriage to Megan Zappa brought him a stepdaughter, too. His kids are ages 9, 11 and 15, and while “they know some of their grandfather’s music … they’re not really in it yet,” Zappa said.
“Music has been so devalued for younger generations. They don’t have the same kind of appreciation for what it is,” he said.
“One of these days, they’ll hop on a tour bus and check things out, but they’ve got school and it’s kind of hard to have them jump into this stuff when I already have a lot going on just playing the music.”
In general, Zappa says, the music industry no longer rewards the artists who keep it afloat.
“Album sales and all that stuff are so far down the drain at this point that people just expect that albums are supposed to be free. It still costs as much as a luxury car to make an album, to record it properly and spend the time. The analogy of, if you just bought yourself a brand-new Maserati, and it costs the same to make a record, what are you going to do, swap my record for your car? I don’t think so,” Zappa said.
He’s been fortunate enough to make a living playing his father’s music, although he’s had to change band names several times in the last 12 years because of legal complications with his father’s estate, controlled by just two of the Zappa siblings after their mother’s death. This tour, the Choice Cuts! World Tour, reflects the fact that Zappa isn’t legally allowed to use his father’s name in tour titles, or in his band’s name.
“Hopefully, the whole thing will find a resolution,” Zappa said.
Meanwhile, he’s looking forward to stunning Stowe audiences April 14. As a parting note, he drops a teaser to encourage Frank Zappa fans to come to the show.
“There’s something about this particular version (of ‘Florentine Pogen’) that has a cool groove. If you know the original, this version is going to flip you out,” Zappa said.