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April 21, 2021

Interview With Dweezil Zappa

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Rats – revisited

Bluesfest  |  9–13 April

I often wonder what it’s like growing up with famous parents. Not just famous – but wildly creative people – who have been an integral part of creating culture. Finding your own space must be something of a challenge, and I guess, a rite of passage. As it no doubt has been for Dweezil Zappa – son of the infamous composer and performer, Frank Zappa.

Fifty years ago, pretty well just before Dweezil was born, his dad dedicated his album Hot Rats to him. So this year, Dweezil has decided to do a 50th year celebration.

‘It kind of all made perfect sense’ said Dweezil. ‘A lot of times people sort of make requests and say, “Oh, you should play this song, you should do this album,” but Hot Rats is one that we’ve played a few of the songs from over the years, but we’ve never played all of them, all in sequence. And it just seemed to make the most sense that, on such an auspicious occasion of it being 50 years old, and still so ahead of its time, why not highlight it?

‘It’s one of the records that always tops the list of fan favourites, even though it has only one vocal song on it. Typically, people respond more to vocal oriented music than straight-up instrumental, but there’s something about the sound quality of the album, and the material on it, that it kind of… if you relate it to a movie soundtrack, there’s a lot of feelings of tension and release that happen with it, and you can tell the moments that are in free-form improvisation, and you can tell the moments that have total structure, and it’s that balance between the two that I think really appealed to people when it came out. There wasn’t really a lot of anything like that at that time. Especially with the amount of fuzz-tone guitar and fuzz-tone violin and stuff like that, there was a lot of new and different stuff happening on the record.’

So how does the son of a crazy genius of a man, who died at just 52 (that’s around the same age Dweezil is now), play an album that seems un-performable, and quite simply, unfathomable?

‘Well, the thing about it is, there is enough stuff on the record that has structure to it, and then there’s enough structure to what the improvisational sections are supposed to be, in terms of straight form, but the ability to then have your own voice and improvise on top of it, and have it be in context to the music – that’s what I always take into consideration when I’m playing my dad’s music.

‘So for example, the song Son Of Mr Green Genes, that has a six or seven minute guitar solo on it, but what he played is so pivotal and so specific in the song that I decided to learn that solo, note for note, and I just play it as he played it, or as close as I can make it sound to what he played.

And so, playing the notes is one thing, but then also recreating the texture of the guitar sound itself, that’s another challenge that I always take on. And so, I feel like with that song in particular, it’s pretty amazing that we are able to recreate all of the textures that are going on in that recording, with just six people.’

This is clearly going to be one of the concerts not to miss at Bluesfest.

‘There’s a lot of stuff happening on many keyboards where layered sounds are happening, different kinds of organs, or sometimes there’s percussion and other things that are happening at various times. And so there’s three people that are playing different keyboard things at times and then… you’ll see, there’s people picking up different instruments throughout the whole thing.’

Hot Rats is part of the Zappa legacy, and only his son, his flesh and blood – the man to whom the album was dedicated – could extend this musical conversation in a way that is not simply replicating, but also re-inventing the Rats experience.

‘What I like to do in the improvisational sections is play certain things that are either specific phrases that began, or are in the middle, or end, of something on the record, but then I fill in the spaces with my own ideas. But I am using sounds that are so specific and evocative of the record, that I’m able to play in a way that feels it’s all in context to the music. Because I don’t want to take a left turn and suddenly be like, “Oh, this has nothing to do with the record,” – so that’s always one of the big challenges working with my dad’s music.’

Holy cow! Dweezil Zappa playing Frank Zappa’s Holy Rats is going to be amazing! He plays Bluesfest 9–13 April. Tix and program info from bluesfest.com.au


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