Dweezil Zappa and his band are heading to Australia in early 2018, celebrating 50 years of Frank Zappa’s music with a series of concerts and exclusive guitar masterclasses. Ahead of the tour AM’s Greg Phillips spoke to Dweezil about what’s in store for Australian fans and discovered that the Zappa family dynamic is a little Waka/Jawaka at the moment.

Dweezil Zappa had been travelling the world, happily playing his father’s multifarious tunes for over a decade under the moniker of Zappa Plays Zappa, keeping the legacy alive and pleasing a large international audience who never tire of Frank’s freaky but fabulous music. Then as has happened to many of us in life, family got involved and things got weird … weird even by this family’s standards. Dweezil attempts to explain what is happening and what he’s doing about it.

“It’s a bit of a confusing thing for the fans and for me as well but … the Zappa family trust is now run by Ahmet and Diva, my younger siblings. Instead of trying to have any sort of family unity by including my sister Moon and me in any kind of decisions or elements that can bring the Zappa music legacy forward, they have chosen to create a blockade. So one of the things that they are doing is that they’ve applied for a US trademark in the field of live music and entertainment. What that means is, if I was to not oppose this trademark … if they were just granted this trademark … they would have the potential to be able to block me using the name Zappa to identify myself as a performer, essentially making it so I can only be Dweezil and not Dweezil Zappa. So of course I have to oppose this and it’s a time consuming and expensive thing to have to deal with. What I did was put a pledge music campaign together, where I could offer new music and other items to people if they were to hear about this particular situation and felt like they’d like to support and raise their voice alongside mine to say, hey this doesn’t sound like a good idea, then they would have an avenue to do that and the campaign is called Dweezil Zappa and the Others of Intention. I have invited people to become one of the Others of Intention. There’s a lot of new music and I have made guitar pedals and sold some guitars on there. There is a whole lot of stuff on there and we keep adding stuff all the time to it. Essentially it is a place to get music and other things that you can’t get anywhere else. So when you participate by selecting some goodies for yourself, then it helps the cause because we are able to continue to move forward with our opposition.”

Despite the family fight and having to change the tour name from Zappa Plays Zappa to Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever The F@%K He Wants, Dweezil continues to play his father’s music and sell out venues around the world. This will be Dweezil’s 4th tour of Australia playing his dad’s music. He also toured here in the 80s as part of Jenny Morris’ band. Working as a VJ for the MTV network at the time he’d got to know the band INXS quite well while Jenny was singing backing vocals with them. “She said hey, I’m doing a tour if you wanna come play guitar,” Dweezil recalls. “I was about 18 at the time so it was my first time going to Australia.”

On their Australian tour next February, Dweezil and his band will be showcasing music from Frank’s entire career celebrating 50 years since the release of the first Frank Zappa album, Freak Out.

“The goal of this particular show is to present the audience with more of a chronological experience of my dad’s music,” Dweezil tells me. “We go from Freak Out to a bunch of Mothers of Invention stuff. I would say the first 45-50 minutes of the show is all early Mothers stuff including specific songs from Freak Out. Then in it gets into the early 70s and 200 Motels and jumps around within the 70s. There will be a host of things from different records and there are a few songs from the 80s. It’s usually almost a 3 hour show, 2 hours and 45 minutes on average but it can be longer. The real goal is to give the audience the chance to hear variety of musical styles within my dad’s whole catalogue but from song to song there is a ton of variety too. We have added in a few things that we haven’t played before. We are getting into rehearsals to learn probably about a dozen songs that we have never played before and there’s one particular thing … there’s a song called Rollo which exists in many forms but it has never been put together where all of the pieces have been strung together to play as one complete set. It’s like a mini-medley of the pieces of this song. We’ll play it so that it is all connected which my dad never did it that way, so it will be fun to present that.”

Much of Frank Zappa’s music is intricate and difficult to play and he was well known for putting musicians through hell in auditions to become part of his band. Steve Vai has famously told of his audition experience, whereby he was asked to play a particular piece of written music. He was then asked to play it in various tricky time signatures and styles. Finally Frank asked for additional notes to be included in the music, to the point where what he was asking for was not possible to play. In the end Steve packed up his stuff, apologised and proceeded to walk out. Frank said, where are you going? You’ve got the gig! I wondered if Dweezil had the same brutal audition regime when putting his own band together.

“The thing about it is … that the music is hard,” he states. “There is no way you can get around that. You can’t fake playing the music. I know that my dad had people who would audition for the band just so that they could say that they auditioned… so that it would give them some credibility on their resume. Even if they couldn’t play the music, somebody would say oh, you auditioned for Frank Zappa, you must be good. I do recall seeing one guy audition where he was a drummer and music was put in front of him which he was supposed to read and play pieces from The Black Page and this very difficult piece called Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation. He sat down and he started tickling the cymbals from the underside, using his fingers to just tickle the cymbals. My dad goes, hey anytime you are ready. The guy goes Ok and then he starts again tickling the cymbals and it was clear that the guy couldn’t read the music and he never played a thing. My dad said, OK you’re done, get out of here. It was so pointless of him to sit there and tickle the cymbals but my point is that I am not going to allow someone to come in and try to tickle the cymbals. What I am looking for in the people to have in the band is to have the prerequisite skills to play the music authentically but almost more important than that is the right attitude. If someone has a great positive attitude and they understand that they are part of an ensemble and their role in playing the music is playing their part and only what they are assigned to play .. that is probably a bigger ingredient to the success of them making it into the band. There could be people that have a lot of technical ability but have a terrible attitude and they’re unprofessional. That’s the stuff you really struggle with as a band leader when you have people out on the road and you’re in close quarters and all that kind of stuff. That’s the last thing you need, a prima donna with a bad attitude.”

As well as the near 3 hour long concerts Dweezil will be performing in Australia, he’ll also be conducting a guitar masterclass before each show. It’s an extension of what he does in his American guitar camps and is something he enjoys immensely.

“This is my 12th year of doing this,” he says. “A lot of people are curious about how we learn this stuff and … you know, what have you learned on guitar that has changed your playing? So I created opportunities to answer some of those questions for people. People have supported what we do for a long time and I like to have some ability to connect with them and have a way to give back some useful information. They bill them as a masterclass even though I don’t call myself a master on the guitar. I just like to share some information which could make playing more fun, or make it little easier or open some doors to more creativity. I have done hundreds of classes and I do a music camp in the US and I know what stuff works. It is fun to be able to share something with somebody that might be feeling like they are stuck in a rut and you can help the open a door to get to the next level.”

Dweezil can also be seen sharing advice in a YouTube series called Guitar Power which is presented by D’Addario. In each episode he sits down with another guitarists and they discuss playing guitar. I asked him if he was comfortable being the interviewer rather than interviewee.
“The Guitar Power thing is a lot of fun,” Dweezil says. “I don’t necessarily feel like I am there to interview anyone. I feel like If I were meeting people for the first time and in many of those instances I was meeting people for the first time … I would naturally ask those questions as it relates to guitar. For me it is just a fun way to learn more myself. It is not as if anybody gives me those questions in advance, it is freeform… let’s sit down and see what’s going on.”

In June this year Dweezil Tweeted a request for some guitars that he could play at gigs in a few US cities because an airline had ‘modified’ his guitar in transit. For many guitarists, when damage occurs due to heavy handed treatment by an airline, they decide to put the good guitar cutlery away and hit the road with lesser quality but more road-hardy instruments. However for Dweezil, it’s not really an option.

“I can’t really do that because I need specific guitars to play the music comfortably and the guitars the guitars I do use are customised to create certain kinds of sounds,” he tells me. “I have always had pretty good luck with travelling with guitars but in this particular instance, it wasn’t the best experience. The funny part about it was that I was on my way to perform at a place called Sweetwater in the US. Sweetwater is a giant music store. They sell a ton of stuff online but they have a giant headquarters location and they do a thing called Gearfest which is a big convention and they have people play and have all their equipment on display. Anyway this short little flight from Chicago to Fort Wayne, which is where Sweetwater is located … they wouldn’t let the guitar on the plane so they gate checked it. When I arrived, the headstock was snapped right off. The fortunate thing was that Sweetwater has tons of gear and a lot of decent guitarists, so I was at least able to have something to do the show. The guys at Sweetwater also fixed my guitar. The headstock was completely broken off but they were able to do a fantastic repair job to it. It only really came about because of the fact that I did a little Tweet and Facebook stuff from Sweetwater. For example when I went up to do the concert, I brought the broken guitar on stage and I had one of the guys hold the headstock, so there could be enough tension on the strings to make some noise because the strings would fall off otherwise. I plugged in the guitar and pretended I had to tune up. This was a Facebook live event and I mentioned that American Airlines had done some modifications to my guitar. Of course that got out to American Airlines. They started following my on Twitter and I started getting calls from them asking what they could do to fix this. To their credit they did a good job to follow through. I think if people in the future have an issue with an airline it is best to express your disappointment in a way that at least has some humour and opens the door to something that could be done. If you just come out swinging and angry, I think they’d be less likely to help you.”

Speaking of guitars, Frank Zappa was known to own some beautiful instruments. With Frank passing away in 1993 and his wife Gail in 2015, I asked Dweezil if Frank’s guitar collection was simply inherited by the family.
“Well that is another crazy situation,” Dweezil sighs as he speaks. “I was given all of the guitars and then my mother got herself in crazy debt towards the end of her life. The guitars were being stored at the house where she was living and she decided that she was going to take back the guitars, which I of course did not agree with. So she did what she decided to do and then she gave three of them back and the rest were instructed to be sold at an auction, which was really such a bad decision. Ahmet actually kept 3 guitars for himself. They were the original 3 that I had requested to get back from the ones which were taken from me. So he decided to keep those for himself knowing that those were the ones that I specifically wanted.”

And the Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix gave to Frank?
“That one was in my possession because that was given to me by my dad and I used it and would play it. That was with me and I still have it and play it.”

Dweezil Zappa Australian tour dates:

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