Imagine that your father was an avant-garde, experimental-rock legend whose astoundingly prolific body of work continues to influence and inspire countless musicians decades after his death.
And imagine that you’re able to keep his legacy alive.
Such is the case of Dweezil Zappa, whose father Frank recorded more than 60 albums – both solo and with The Mothers of Invention – spanning the genres of pop, rock, jazz, electronic and even classical music before succumbing to prostate cancer in 1993.
Dweezil, a guitar prodigy who released an album (produced by Eddie Van Halen) at the age of 12, dabbled in other forms of entertainment such as working as an MTV VJ and landing minor parts in films including “The Running Man” and “Pretty in Pink” before settling on his true calling in 2006.
Zappa Plays Zappa is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – Dweezil and a select group of outstanding “telepathic” musicians perform in tribute to the elder Zappa, and they do it so well that they won a Grammy in 2009.
Zappa Plays Zappa hits the Culture Room on Thursday, where the group will perform “One Size Fits All,” the final album by The Mothers of Invention, for its 40th anniversary, plus more than an hour of additional Zappa classics.
Dweezil Zappa talked to Miami.com about the show, how seeing his father perform live shaped him as a musician, and the one song they wrote together, which is on his new album, “Via Zamata.”
What can we expect from the show?
We’re playing “One Size Fits All” in its entirety, which takes about 50 minutes, and then we fill the rest of the show with a lot of different music from throughout my dad’s career. We have some rare tracks that we’re featuring as well, like “The Grand Wazoo” and some other instrumental stuff that’s kind of deeper cuts. We like to try to fill in the show with things that have anchors in different eras, so that there’s stuff from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some other things that might happen are I have a record called “Via Zamata” that is the first record I’ve made in 10 years, so some of my own material might show up.
What’s special to you about “One Size Fits All”?
That particular record has a lot of really good material on it that’s challenging and really fun to play, but the one real standout song on it is not only the hardest song on the record, but one of the hardest songs of his whole catalog, a song called “Inca Roads,” and it has very tricky rhythmic sections and a couple of really fast parts that are hard to play. The thing about it that is also cool is that it’s the first time in one of my dad’s songs where he develops this one style of arrangement that then comes back throughout the rest of his career quite a bit. But he defines it in this song, and it has composed parts that must be executed, but then there are a lot of improvisational things thrown into the songs – some of them are signals or hand-cues, and some of them are solo sections that are improvisational. The thing about it is, it makes the song different every time that you play it. So the song can have a life of its own – every time it’s performed live, it’s gonna be different. If you listen to 1,000 different versions of it, it’s never gonna be exactly the same, and he did that with a lot of his music. And it’s a very ingenious way to keep it fresh and interesting.
Why did you name your record “Via Zamata”?
It’s the name of a street in Sicily where my great-grandfather – Frank’s grandfather – emigrated from. So we got a chance to go and visit and see where that was, and this record is like a journey through everything musically for me, and it was a very similar feeling for me of tracing family roots.
And it has the only song that you and your father wrote together?
Yeah, there’s a song called “Dragon Master,” which he had written the lyrics to and told me to write the music. This was back in 1986 I think, and at the time, metal was still predominantly the most popular type of music still on the charts, but it was turning much more into glam metal and just sort of hair-rock, and he had written this song that was this over-the-top, super heavy metal song. And at the time, he was doing it as a spoof of itself, but on this album, I changed it up and made it so it was a dead serious metal song, something like Iron Maiden would do. And I played an Arabic instrument called the “oud,” so there’s an Arabic theme that is woven into the song, kind of like the ominous sound of awakening the dragon.
You started your career insanely early – is that directly because of your father’s influence?
Well, growing up, I saw my dad playing live all the time, and I was really fascinated by what seemed like a magic trick – his music I could tell was very complicated, and it was not something I was thinking at a young age, “Oh, I’ll be able to do that,” because it just seemed way too hard. But I like seeing that extreme examples of challenging things were possible, and so in my mind, I always thought that one day I might be able to do something like that. But I didn’t necessarily set out to try to copy that or anything. When I really got interested in music to begin with, it was the metal era, and the biggest things in the world were Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne with Randy Rhoads – when I was 12, that’s what I was listening to and learning how to do. But basically a lifetime later, I’m doing my dad’s music and my own music, and things that have various influences – it’s not just one genre.
You must be proud to expose your father’s music to a new generation.
Well, the goal was always to give a newer and younger generation a chance to experience the music in a live situation, because me growing up as a kid, I would see that stuff and I was always amazed at the musicianship and the music itself. So what I wanted to be able to do was give people a chance to have that experience now, because in some ways, it’s a bit of a lost art to have live music performed in this way. Most big-time acts are really performing shows are set up to a grid, with lighting cues, bakcing tracks and all these kinds of things, where it’s a big production, and it’s not really about the musicianship – it’s about a show, about what it looks like. This is about just music, and just letting the music speak for itself.
As accomplished and celebrated as your father was, do you think he’s still underappreciated as a musician?
I totally do, and that’s why I set this whole project up and have been doing it for 10 years. The fact that we’ve been doing it for a decade shows that there’s quite a bit of interest in what he was doing. But what I always say it that this is not nostalgic music, not music from the past – this is music from the future. Because there’s really nothing that sounds like it. It’s 40 years old, but it’s completely fresh.