"The goal is to give people the opportunity to be exposed to the music," says guitarist and bandleader Dweezil Zappa, the eldest son of rock icon and modern composer Frank Zappa. He leads the uniquely cross-generational musical project Zappa Plays Zappa into Charleston this week for a concert that surely stands out as one of the more daring shows of the year.
"Obviously, the core fans that've always been into it would have an immediate interest in checking it out," says the young Zappa. "But from that point, to grow and expand the audience is the real challenge. How to do that with this music — knowing that it will never be on the radio and it's not going to be written about in all of these magazines targeting under-30 audiences — how do you get the word to these people? Really, the only way to do it is on tour and in grass-roots ways."
The Zappa Plays Zappa ensemble embarked on a massive world tour last month, joining Dream Theater's Progressive Nation Tour 2009 as the supporting act. Their show at the Charleston Music Hall on Monday is one of several one-off shows, which is fortunate for local Zappa-heads and curious rookies.
Finely-tuned as an elaborate tribute to the music of the late composer, guitarist, and Mothers of Invention bandleader, the Zappa Plays Zappa project first got off the ground in 2004. Dweezil began compiling tunes from his father's prolific catalog and assembling the seven-piece band. Early participants included Zappa alumni Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, and Napoleon Murphy Brock.
"I studied the music for two years before I even put the band together, just to be certain that I would be bringing the right level of skill and accuracy to it," says Zappa. "One of the things that we set out to do was to not reinterpret it in any way. We take actual recordings and scores, and we respect what that composition is and the way Frank meant it to be heard. That goal's not to draw attention to ourselves; it's to draw attention to the music. Our whole process is based on respect for the compositions. It's not my job to improve the composition; it's my job to give people the chance to experience it in an authentic way."
Dweezil may be remembered by some as a California hipster who occasionally popped up on the TV screen. He released his first solo album, Havin' a Bad Day, in 1986. He also worked as a VJ on MTV in the late-'80s, and appeared in several big-hair music videos and teen flicks. However, his brilliant guitar technique and high levels of creativity and discipline should not be overlooked.
In 2006, he led the entourage around the globe on the "Tour de Frank." It gradually evolved into an even more complexly-arranged on-stage extravaganza of classic Mothers of Invention tunes, Frank's off-shoots, and music composed by Dweezil himself.
In May 2009, Ben Thomas officially joined Zappa Plays Zappa as the new lead singer for the American and European tours after a lengthy audition process. On this summer's tour, Thomas joins Zappa along with woodwind player Scheila Gonzalez, bassist Pete Griffin, percussionist Billy Hulting, guitarist Jamie Kime, and drummer Joe Travers.
"In the four years that we've been doing this, we're seeing more and more young people at the shows, so it is taking on a different personality," Zappa says. "The audience has a different kind of energy when you have young people in the crowd. People are now more familiar with the concept of what we're doing. They know what to expect, and they've adopted the band as a band. They're interested in what this band will do — not only with Frank Zappa music, but other music, too. A lot of people are asking for that type of evolution to enter into what we do.
"It's not weird for the sake of being weird," he adds. "My father started as a classical composer. He literally went to the library as a youth and read books about how to be a composer. He taught himself all the required skills mainly by going to the library. One of the reasons his music sounds the way it does is because he didn't have a specific, formal training from a music academy or college. He really had no boundaries within his music."
From the Mothers of Invention's 1966 debut Freak Out and follow-up Absolutely Free to the soundtracks to Frank Zappa's 1971 film 200 Motels and beyond, the elder Zappa's music was often a roller-coaster of absurd musical theater, freakish chamber works, and outrageous humor.
"Ultimately, he was writing music that was essentially orchestral, but he was using a rock ensemble to perform the majority of it," says Dweezil. "That's one of the perhaps most misunderstood things about Frank's music. All the intricate details are his own creation."
It seems that the musical evolution is endless for Zappa and his colleagues. When they started, the project offered something for everyone involved — and for every fan, young and old. It continually develops in subtle ways, but with their goals and forward-thinking attitudes strongly intact.
"It's definitely music that is very current ... even though some of it is 40 years old," Zappa says. "There's not really anything that sounds like this music. Frank really took a singular path nobody has followed. Once it really finds a younger audience, I think they'll adopt it as their own."