Halloween was always an important holiday for Frank Zappa. The maestro’s outrageous, superbly performed concerts at the Palladium in New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s are legendary (for sonic proof, check out the “Live in New York” CD and the DVD audio “Halloween”).
On Thursday, Zappa Plays Zappa -- the tribute band led by Frank’s son Dweezil -- will carry on the Zappa Halloween tradition when it performs at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. On this current Zappa Plays Zappa tour, the group is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ “Roxy & Elsewhere,” one of the quintessential live albums released by the late Zappa (1940-1993), who often unveiled new material, and plenty of “madness” along with it, on many of his live albums. “Roxy & Elsewhere” will be also reissued on vinyl on Dec.10, along with “Uncle Meat,” another revered FZ album.
Of course, during Zappa Plays Zappa’s upcoming performances, fans can expect to experience a rendition of “Cheapnis,” Zappa’s tribute to old horror movies, which, as any Zappa fanatic will tell you, features the appearance of the giant poodle dog Frunobulax.
“My dad loved cheesy monster movies,” Dweezil Zappa tells International Business Times during an extensive interview (see extensive interview Q&A below). “He used to screen them on a projector in the basement when we were kids. We watched “Brainiac” and laughed at the dessert spoons being used to eat brains.”
“Roxy & Elsewhere” also captures some of Frank’s finest guitar work. Among the many musical talents Zappa was known for was his guitar work, including his solo-quenched extended compositions. On the “Roxy” album, Zappa rips through remarkable riffs and lyrical leads with with his trusty Gibson SG. “As a soloist he had the ability to react to the music extemporaneously in the moment,” Dweezil points out to IBT. (To hear other notable Zappa guitar work taking center stage, check out the “Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar” and “Guitar” albums.)
Much of the material on “Roxy & Elsewhere” was recorded at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood in December of 1973, while three other tracks, “Dummy Up,” “Son of Orange County” and “More Trouble Everyday” (a stirring rock/blues revisiting of a song from “Freak Out!,” the wonderfully uncategorizable '66 set that launched Zappa’s wildly prolific career) are from, well, elsewhere.
During the "Roxy" dates, Zappa led an especially astounding Mothers of Invention: George Duke (keyboards), Tom Fowler (bass), Ruth Underwood (percussion), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Walt Fowler (trumpet), Napoleon Murphy Brock (vocals), and Chester Thompson (drums).
Besides the Zappa Plays Zappa shows, there’s another key piece of news regarding the 40th anniversary of "Roxy": The long-awaited concert film “The Roxy Performances” could hit DVD and theaters in the near future, according to the official Frank Zappa website. But first, a CD set that will include never-before-released "Roxy" music is in the works, thanks to a Zappa Family Trust and Zappa Records joint initiative. In fact, the two FZ forces are offering up the opportunity for Zappa fans to license their very own copies of “Roxy By Proxy (All Roxy No Elsewhere),” which is providing funding for the film’s release.
For a $1,000 licensing fee, fans are able to own a master duplication copy of 76 minutes of never-before-released Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention master recordings from the Roxy performances held Dec. 9 and 10. Those masters feature Zappa/Mothers nailing “Inca Roads,” “Penguin in Bondage,” “T’Mershi Duween,” “Dog/Meat,” “RDNZL,” “Cheepnis & Dupree’s Paradise,” “King Kong,” “Chunga’s Revenge” and other favorites.
“The fans would also be provided with liner notes and packaging artwork so they can duplicate the CDs to sell at any price they choose, with a $1.20 per CD mechanical royalty to be paid back to Zappa Records,” according to a press statement. “Roxy By Proxy” has been available for preorder from Zappa.com.
“Interested fans/participants can sell as many copies of the album as they’d like at the retail level, as official licensed distributors for the Zappa Family Trust. They can also give CDs away gifts,” the website noted.
The Zappa Plays Zappa “Roxy” shows and the Roxy By Proxy/Roxy Performances initiative haven’t been the only new Zappa happenings this year. Already unveiled this year is a massive abundance of recordings from Frank Zappa -- a guitarist, singer, composer, producer, conductor and political figure whose output of uniquely signature rock, jazz, blues, prog, R&B, classical and experimental sonics has proven to be, especially lately, nearly infinite.
Back in June came the first official release of “A Token of His Extreme,” a program created by Frank Zappa for TV. Recorded on Aug. 27, 1974, at KCET in Hollywood, the program -- featuring Zappa performing with George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson -- was edited, “thoroughly tweezed” and produced by FZ for Honker Home Video. Stereo Mixes were produced by Zappa with Kerry McNabb the same year, and mastering for the DVD was carried out by Bob Ludwig 2009.
Frank himself said this about “A Token of His Extreme” while he appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” in ’76:
“This was put together with my own money and my own time and it’s been offered to television networks and to syndication and it has been steadfastly rejected by the American television industry. It has been shown in primetime in France and Switzerland, with marvelous results. It’s probably one of the finest pieces of video work that any human being has ever done. I did it myself. And the animation that you’re gonna see in this was done by a guy named Bruce Bickford, and I hope he is watching the show, because it’s probably the first time that a lot of people in America got a chance to see it.”
Because “Token” had never been commercially available until June, it has become one of the most sought after of all Zappa releases.
Meanwhile, much of Zappa’s enormous catalog has been re-released this year on CD and vinyl as well as on iTunes, emusic.com and Zappa.com. Comprising re-releases of monumental FZ albums like “Hot Rats,” Uncle Meat,” “Zoot Allures,” “Overnight Sensation” and “Sheik Yerbouti,” to name just a few, the onslaught of all this FZ material is almost too cool to be believed.
The Zappa Family Trust is honoring Frank with a series of events to close out 2013. Among them was a performance of one of Zappa’s famed orchestral works, “200 Motels,” on Oct. 23, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Philharmonic at L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Led by conductor-laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, the proceedings featured Mothers of Invention member Ian Underwood; Scott Thunes, who also played with Zappa; Zappa Family Trust “Vaultmeister” Jamie Kim; and Zappa Plays Zappa drummer Joe Travers (see one of his drum solos here).
Speaking of Zappa Plays Zappa, the Dweezil-fronted group will bring the “Roxy & Elsewhere” 40th anniversary gig to the actual Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood on Dec. 7-9 of this year.
Over the years, singer, guitarist and composer Dweezil Zappa has recorded a number of must-hear albums: “Havin’ a Bad Day,” “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” “Automatic,” Go With What You Know” and two Zappa Plays Zappa live albums, to name a few.
Currently, he also hosts his own Dweezilla Music Bootcamp. In fact, during the Roxy & Elsewhere 40th anniversary tour, Dweezil has been sharing his own guitar- playing insights with various sized groups before concerts.
Now, without further ado, is IBT’s interview with Dweezil Zappa:
IBT: “Roxy & Elsewhere,” one of your dad’s greatest releases, will be re-released on vinyl soon. In celebration of the Roxy shows’ 40th anniversary, Zappa Plays Zappa band is performing the album in concert. Frank put out many amazing live albums, and Roxy is hardly the only one significant enough to be re-released for a key anniversary. Why do you think Roxy is especially important?
DZ: It's true there are many records in my dad's catalog that are approaching significant anniversaries. The amazing thing about my father's music and his album production is that it stands the test of time and remains contemporary. He always focused on immaculate details both in his composition and in his production. That is why his music has such amazing repeat listening value. You can always find something new when you listen back.
The "Roxy And Elsewhere" album captures a great iteration of his band. He had two drummers onstage, plus trombone, sax, and lots of percussion. Frank even played percussion at times. The song selection is really well balanced and displays a lot of depth and variety. There are some extremely difficult songs in the set. "The Be-Bop Tango" has a wildly intervallic melody and tricky rhythms. Even the tricky stuff is seriously groovy on this record. I think that contributed a lot to the popularity of the record. For me, all of that stuff resonates and of course I love the guitar playing and the guitar tones. I think it's my dad's funkiest album.
IBT: Anything to say about how the members of your band approach Frank’s music?
DZ: The band I've put together has evolved like many of Frank's bands. The current lineup is our rocking teenage combo band. It has the youngest players and most enthusiastic players. The approach to the music is to play it with respect to the composer's intent. We learn everything literally note for note from either hand written scores or very accurate transcriptions we make from the records. We even pull out the master tapes if we need direct access to things that are not discernible from a stereo mix. The members of the band have no previous affiliation with playing my dad's music. Some did not know the music prior to being in the band. We work as an ensemble to bring a detailed experience to the audience that is evocative of the eras the music comes from.
IBT: Zappa live albums redefined the meaning of live rock albums. Much of the material on, say, “Roxy” – like “Penguin in Bondage,” “Village of the Sun” and “Cheepnis” -- was new to the listener when it was first released, but it was a live album. And the previously released material on “Roxy,” like “More Trouble Everyday” -- was reworked to the point of it having a whole new vibe. Your thoughts?
DZ: My dad viewed touring as a great musical exploration. He didn't set out to re-create the sound of his studio albums. His fans learned over time that his modus operandi was "Anything At Any Time For Any Reason At All" and grew to expect the unexpected at his shows. For some fans they might have had the desire to hear re-creations of studio album material but my dad believed people could hear those records at home and on stage they should be treated to something different. We are lucky he chose that approach because we can listen back and hear how he was able to take songs like "Trouble Everyday" and redesign them to emphasize the strengths of the touring band at the time. That song in particular had at least three well-known arrangements over the years.
The interesting thing is you could start with a record like "Roxy" and then go back 10 years to "Freak Out" or forward another 17 years to the "Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life" record that has the Jimmy Swaggart version and compare the difference in the sound of "Trouble Everyday." I don't think there is any artist other than my father who continually reinterpreted their own work in such a way. To your question, it has been my experience that people discover my dad's music out of sequence. With over 80 albums released it's easy to understand why. I always find it interesting to hear stories from people about the first Frank Zappa album that got them hooked, for example Billy Bob Thornton got hooked on "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" and wrote “Sling Blade” while that CD played on a loop.
IBT: What are your most favorite Frank Zappa albums?
DZ: It's really hard to choose my top 3 favorites. I have a strong emotional connection with all of the music. I literally grew up with it.
The three albums I would recommend that could give people a good idea of the depth of my father's compositional abilities would be the pivotal first album "Freak Out" because you need to know where it all began! Then for a great fusion of rock, jazz, blues, gospel, and classical I would recommend "Apostrophe," and finally strictly for his classical works, "The Yellow Shark."
IBT: I want to talk with you a bit about your musical life while growing up as a Zappa. Did your dad help you learn guitar? If so, what did you discover from him that’s most important for you as a guitarist and music artist?
DZ: He did teach me some things on guitar, all of which I will never forget and can still readily play. That said, he preferred to let me choose my own musical path. At the point where I am in my life now, he would be the most valuable person to discuss music with. I have so many questions for him about how he approached his work! Of course, his wit and astute social commentary would be nice to have around again. I learned a lot in my life from him by example.
IBT: You’ve been doing Zappa Plays Zappa for a while now. How is performing your dad’s music especially important for you?
DZ: I started Zappa Plays Zappa as a labor of love in 2006. At it's core, I wanted to give people of my generation and younger an opportunity to discover my dad's music. In the process, I wanted to also re-educate them about his work. Prior to touring I studied the music for two years, starting with listening to all of my dad's records in chronological order. I wanted to hear the arc of his career and I wanted to utilize my band to deliver a show that focused on what I considered to be my dad's most under appreciated talents: his work as a composer and as a guitarist. Unfortunately most people only have casual exposure to my dad's music and often relegate it to a novelty category because of songs like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" or "Valley Girl,” which happened to accidentally get some airplay. I think he has been misrepresented by the media over the years as well, with a focus on the humorous aspects of Frank's music and trivializing his greater musical achievements. So I choose to emphasize the iconic and detailed instrumentals in his body of work. To learn to play them requires a lot of skill and patience.
IBT: How has your own guitar work and musical life progressed over the years?
DZ: My approach to music has changed quite a bit. I've become a musician more than a guitarist. The difference is that I now know more about the language of music and the role of an ensemble player. I've even started a music school called Dweezilla, and I teach guitar and share stories of what it's like to keep a band together. I've been so busy with Zappa Plays Zappa I have not had time to focus my new skills on my writing much of my own music. That said, I have recently completed a song of my own called “Dinosaur” that reveals many of the ways Zappa Plays Zappa has changed my approach to music. It will be available on iTunes and Spotify etc. in the coming weeks.
IBT: What are some of your favorite parts of "Roxy & Elsewhere"?
DZ: The "Roxy" album has many highlights. The band has a fantastic rhythm section and Ruth Underwood is a standout on percussion. You gotta love George Duke's playing on there as well. Great personality and tone. I love the "Village Of The Sun" transitions into "Echidna's Arf" and then into "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing." Many people don't know that it's three different songs or where one ends and one begins. Those last two songs are also very challenging to play. "Cheepnis" is also a great song. My dad loved cheesy monster movies. He used to screen them on a projector in the basement when we were kids. We watched “Braniac” and laughed at the dessert spoons being used to eat brains.
IBT: What periods of Frank's music are your especially fond of?
DZ: I like all of the periods of my dad's music, but the middle ‘70s through the early ’90s really stand because I watched it all happen from an early age. I'm partial to records like Apostrophe, Overnite Sensation, Zappa In New York, Joe's Garage, Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar, You Are What You Is, The Best Band series, The Yellow Shark and much more. I loved watching Frank run sessions and sound checks. He did not mess around. He knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish and he got the job done. There is not another way to explain how he wrote and recorded so much music.
IBT: Anything to say about Frank’s guitar style and approach to playing? Besides using the guitar as a crucial ensemble instrument, he wrote and performed some of the most interesting guitar-solo pieces ever recorded – which were influential to many guitarists, including Steve Vai and Adrian Belew, two virtuosos Frank performed with.
DZ: As a guitarist Frank was highly under appreciated. His approach was so different on so many levels. For example, early on he experimented with splitting his signal between amps and direct inputs, which gave him the ability to blend clean sounds with dirty sounds. At times live and in the studio his guitar was recorded to as many as five tracks, enabling him to create a very three-dimensional sound during a mix. Not only that he had onboard electronics built into his guitars that allowed him to fine tune eq for the stage and induce beautifully controllable feedback. When you add that advanced audio approach to his advanced musical approach you get amazing results. As soloist he had the ability to react to the music extemporaneously in the moment. He had a vast musical vocabulary and never repeated himself. He truly improvised and considered his soloing process to be creating air sculptures. He had an amazing inner clock and his rhythmic approach is what makes his playing stand out the most. I loved that he would play at time with reckless abandon and use such a gutsy tone.
IBT: Of the guitarists and other musicians Frank was interestedin, who did he often talk about?
DZ: We discussed a lot of guitarists. Players I was interested in like Randy Rhoads, Edward Van Halen, Warren DeMartini and Allan Holdsworth. He talked about Johnny Guitar Watson and Howlin' Wolf a lot because he loved their musical approach.
IBT: It was announced that the tribute version of the Gibson SG guitar that your dad used while performong the “Roxy & Elsewhere” would be coming out soon. Why is that guitar so key as far the equipment on it and the way it’s set up?
DZ: The new Frank Zappa "Roxy" SG is fantastically well built and offers up many unique tones. It's identical to the original in terms of feel and appearance. He played that SG for several years in the mid ’70s, and it was on records like "Apostrophe" and "Overnite Sensation" as well. The out of phase sound is really the signature sound of the guitar. Frank used it to great effect on "Nanook Rubs It." It is a great tool that enables me to re-create many of his most complex signature sounds in exacting detail.