Frank Zappa remains one of the most enigmatic musical figures of the 20th century. Over the course of a 30-year career, Zappa released a large body of work in genres as diverse as rock and classical, jazz and electronic. After his death in 1993 Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
However, according to Frank Zappa’s son, Dweezil Zappa, there are still plenty of misconceptions about his father’s musical career. The younger Zappa is on a mission to expose audiences to his father’s music and to set a few things straight. These are not easy tasks given the elder Zappa’s vast catalog and wild stylistic swings. On Thursday, April 16, Dweezil will bring Zappa Plays Zappa, a project that showcases Frank Zappa’s music, to Iron City. Dweezil Zappa will also instruct a guitar master class at Iron City at 3 p.m. that day. Weld caught up with Dweezil by phone from Los Angeles.
Weld: Dweezil, thanks for your time. How long has the Zappa Plays Zappa project existed?
DZ: It is now a decade since I started it. It was one of those things where we decided to give it a try because my feeling was people under 30 didn’t have a good idea of what my father’s music was. If my dad’s name was mentioned, some people would say, “Who?”
To me, that was unfortunate since I felt he made such major contributions to music. I wanted people to be able to hear his music in a live setting and really see it played by people that were not alumni so that the music could carry forward.
I liken [the project] to classical music in the way that classical music is a tradition that’s carried forward. An orchestra plays the music that’s on the page the way it was written because that’s the tradition that you want people to experience as time goes on. If a piece of music is 300 years old, you want to respect that piece of music.
Weld: Given your father’s vast catalog of music, how do you select the material for your tours? Do the set lists change each night?
DZ: The challenge in all of this is playing the music because it’s hard, and whenever you have a show — we play two to two-and-a-half hours — it’s hard to change it up drastically night after night because of the way it’s organized and you lose track of things. So, we generally create a set list that will have a few things that can swap out.
It also helps to have it set up that way so that there’s a constant arc to the show in terms of the balance of things. Usually our goal is to introduce people to a lot of [music] they may not know anything about. We focus on a lot of that kind of stuff. On this tour, we’re playing the entire album One Size Fits All, so the whole front half of the show we’ll be playing that album in sequence.
Weld: How would you describe your typical audience?
DZ: Initially it was mostly core fans from the older generation. You’d look out in the audience and everybody was over 50 or 60. That is something that has changed. There are still a lot of those kind of folks coming to the show, but there’s a younger crowd too. The real goal of this project is to get a younger audience to recognize that this is not music from the past. This is music from the future because nobody has made music like this other than my dad.
Weld: How do you select personnel for your tours? Is it a revolving line-up?
DZ: We have had people change over the years. The first five or six years I had the same core band. The material is very difficult so you need the right mindset and discipline to learn it, but you also have to have the right kind of social skills to be able to be on tour. There might be people that can play the stuff, but you can’t hang out with them because they’re not the right type of individual.
Weld: In your opinion, what is the most misunderstood thing about your father?
DZ: As far as the music goes, I think a lot of people have the wrong idea because of what’s portrayed in the media about him. My point is that he seems to be portrayed as a novelty act, more like a comedy songwriter. I don’t see that Frank is that as an artist if you look at his music. The things that got played on the radio — like “Valley Girl” — if that’s the casual exposure, then there’s this idea that that’s what his music is. But over 80 albums there’s a lot of stuff people don’t know about him, including his classical compositions. It’s amazing music, so that’s the stuff I try to present as the real core of the music.
Zappa Plays Zappa will perform at Iron City Thursday, April 16, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $32.50 ($36 day of the show). Tickets to the 3 p.m. master class are $75. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.