I met up with Dweezil in a hotel in London – this was a serious cattle call, with a holding area for journos, and a set of PAs rushing about herding, ushering, cajoling and terminating. Dweezil played on his blue guitar the whole way through the interview, punctuating his answers with little lickettes. Personable, intelligent and polite, he shooed away the PA twice before finally terminating the interview with an offer to speak on the phone if I needed any more. Gail Zappa was also most accommodating, spending an hour on the phone sorting out various teething problems – a top woman and no mistake.
The text and photographs belong to me, so if you must steal them, do ask nicely first!
Dweezil Zappa and Pete Langman
P: Where to start? Why?
D: Well ultimately, you know, that’s a three pronged answer.
We, as a family have been emotionally unable to make something like this happen up until now, and, you know not that we’re over the passing of Frank, but we’re more able to be involved in a celebration at this point, just because, you know, music can trigger so many emotional responses, and being so close to Frank’s music our whole lives, you know it just wasn’t something that we thought we could handle until now, and, there’s no significance in “oh it’s been 12 years as opposed to 10 years”, or whatever, it’s the emotional side, but then – in this past 12 years, Frank’s music has really been I think in the shadows, you know, his music has never been very commercially available, you know, not by the same standards that you would apply to like Beyonce or, you know, Eminem, but you know, having said that, if his music was, more people would like it – more people, you know…exposure is the key element to give somebody the opportunity to decide whether they like something.
So for us to do this tour, it allows us to expose his music in a way that is really the only way we can reach a new audience as well as his core fans. And that’s to do it live on stage. There would be no point in us saying “oh we’re gonna record a record of Frank’s music” you, know. His music recorded by him doesn’t get played on the radio, so why would our version get on the radio, you know it’s not the conduit that would make the most sense. But also just the timing of the way things are in the world – the climate, the political – and musically speaking – the climate just feels like it’s ready for a change.
P: Spirit of the music thing. Frank was always a live musician, live – half the records were live. The way he manipulated words and engaged politically with what was happening at a particular time. Are you going to try and get that across – are you going to try and adapt what he did in the way that maybe he would have done, had he been alive now? What might he have said about Iraq for example?
D: Well I mean the thing is, we don’t have the same ability to eloquently present his observations. He was brilliant in that he could micro-encapsulate the most complex situations and either give you an observation of it and put it in a song, or just, you know, succinctly express his opinion, in a way that, that really showed his wit and his personality, and you know it could be on anything – politically or whatever. But for us, what we can bring to his music, besides performing it accurately, because you know, the instructions are there, just on the page, is, because we’re related, because we grew up with the music, we understand it in a way in terms of its intent, and the humour involved, that is different than other people who play the music. I mean, best way I can make you understand it is – I’ve heard lots of people perform Frank’s music, and you know, even if they’re playing the right notes, when they decide “well, I’m gonna do my version, I’m gonna arrange it this way”, you know Frank had a description of, sort of his applied usage of things, but basically he would say “you gotta put the eyebrows on it” you know – and for him, that is the thing that makes it what it is, you know, he takes something obvious and then he just turns it a little bit, and suddenly you have this new perspective of something that you never would have thought of.
P: So how are you dealing with the eyebrows in that respect?
D: Well first of all, you have to be able to understand the concept and the perspective of where the eyebrows come from, and I think that is intrinsically part of our DNA, you know, so for us, we can put the eyebrows on it in terms of the sense of humour and carrying on the tradition of what Frank did in a live situation. We’ve seen, you know, tons of shows, and obviously we had first hand knowledge and experience with his personality and sense of humour, so, the intent in that humour and the way that it all comes together, Ahmed and I, we’re like two sides of a coin, you know, I’m the more serious side that focuses on the fundamental aspects of it, which Frank clearly had a strong serious side, he took what he did very seriously, but he didn’t take himself very seriously, and [Ahmed’s] more of the sense of humour side, who can focus his attention to the audience, to bring the humour out as well as deliver the musical goods.
But ultimately, it’s all there in the music, you know, but there is a difference in the execution. Our version versus some of the other versions that are out there. There’s bands filled with former members that do a horrific job, in fact an abomination, and those are the kinds of people that we feel do a dis-service to the music, because they add what they think is, you know, elements of themselves in a way that makes them equally as important as Frank.
P: Modern classical music. Frank composed and conducted his own music. I’m just wondering how the conducting thing is working there, are you conducting?
D: We will not stand on stage with a baton, you know, and conduct the band because, you know, one of things we wanted to make clear to people was, first of all we chose not to have former band members as the core band because, we don’t want to give people the impression that our intention is to create, or re-create an experience they’ve already had with a performance of Frank’s music. You know, we wanted a clean canvas, to have everybody be motivated by the same thing. The challenge of playing the music, but just the real love of doing this, you know. And people that formerly worked with him, while some really did love the experience and it was something that still is deeply important to them, others have turned it into this thing of, you know, trying to somehow make it seem like they had more of an involvement, whereas in actual fact, you know, Frank wrote it all, on the page, you know and there’s just no dispute.
But – what you were saying, you know, a conductor will add his emotional response to the music, and try to, you know, lift the music at the places he feels it most. And, you know, any classical musician, you know is also trying to do the same thing in their own performance, but they also respond to the conductors, so, you know, in that way, they’re working together to create the emotional depth, to the piece, and I think we can do that with Frank’s music, because, we’re so intrinsically, you know, connected to it, you know, we don’t have to pretend with a baton.
P: He used to conduct on stage, that was part of his thing – not in the baton way, conducting coming from within
D: That’s the way we view it.
P: Performing with him, duets?
D: There’s an element of that that we’ve discussed doing, whether or not we’re able to actually make that happen, or not remains to be seen ‘cause the technical logistics of it require that you have the right footage to make it work, and we actually don’t know, so it’s perhaps not worth writing about just yet because we don’t know if it’s actually going to be that way.
But, you know, we basically are gonna to perform the music that we like the most, that we also feel the fans have traditionally requested the most or enjoyed the most, and also Frank had his own particular favourites that he were performed frequently, so we’re trying to include everything, and you know we may create medleys of music that are from certain time periods, even if we don’t play the whole song, you’re still gonna get a feel that we’ve touched on that area. And we’re not gonna do it in a chronological way, it’s just we will have musical [segways] throughout the show, like Frank used to do. The idea is to perform in a way that is consistent with the way that Frank would perform, and the fact that we’re related, I really do believe that it will show through, and the sincerity of what we’re doing is also going to show through.
I know a lot of people have asked us, you know “aren’t you concerned that people just think you’re trying to cash in and trade on a name”, and our response is really, you know first of all, Frank’s music wasn’t very commercial, so how can we suddenly create a very commercial event, you know, we can’t change people’s perspective overnight, and you know, and our goal is to make his music flourish for future generations, we really feel like, you know as we were talking about before, the timing is now, I mean you know, his music is always relevant and timeless because it has so many indescribable ingredients that, you know, are just the magical things that happen between musical interplay in a live situation. And it really is something that’s lacking from music today because there’s so much, there’s so much manipulation by computers in modern music, and you know, computer technology is great, but it has also created this vacuum where everybody’s using the same software, the same instruments, the same technology for virtually everything, and turning music into something that is really quite abnormal, it’s abnormally in tune, it’s abnormal in time, people, you know use the computer to set up a grid and move things so it’s very rigidly placed. And while it may sound technically tighter in many cases, certainly it can improve the performance of a less talented musician, but, you know, if everybody’s doing it, and it’s sort of a lazy thing to do, and it strips away the personality, that’s why when you put on a Beatles record or a Led Zeppelin record and you actually hear mistakes and you go “it’s just so cool”, you know, “they’re just playing” you know, and even if they themselves would have thought “well, it’s too bad that mistake’s in there, but…” you know, nowadays you would fix all that stuff, because you could.
But I just sort of, I love the possibilities, that it’s just… Frank always stayed within the moment of whatever he was doing, ‘cause that’s the time that he grew up in, you know. So, I mean, when he first started listening to music, you know, the technology of the day was, you got a microphone that acts like the ears, and to make the mix sound different, you have to move the instruments further away from the microphone, and you a have one shot at playing the song correctly on a recording, you know, especially when they were just, you know, engraving it right onto the disk.
So, you know – it’s a different mindset now.
P: I did see you play with Zappa at Wembley
D: A long time ago, 1988, probably…
P: A long time ago. How much influence did he have on you as an actual physical musical guitarist rather than just the all-encompassing musical spirit sort of thing?
D: Well you know, the thing is that, you know, as I have developed as a guitarist, you know, I know there’s a big distinction, at least in my mind that to be a guitarist is one thing, but to be a musician is another. To be a musician is a much more lofty aspiration because, in my opinion, what that really means to me, is somebody that can interact, knows enough about music that you are not, you’re able to have a conversation within the context of music, you know, and to be a great musician is somebody that can, eloquently change things, you know, do something sophisticated but still musical, I mean take the obvious and then just twist it. And Frank was great at that, but the best improvisational musicians, you know from the jazz world, from the rock world, of which there are very few in the rock world, you know that’s the kind of thing that I was exposed to at an early age. But the thing that I gravitated to initially was more technically oriented, you know it was music that Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and some other things that had some technical guitar things – very specific to guitar, and you know that was the path that, you know, the journey that I went on at first. And over a period of time, I became, you know, bored with what I knew, because I didn’t have the musical background that would allow me to continue to make what I do more sophisticated, so I specifically had to work on a lot of that stuff over the last few years which is another reason why this tour couldn’t have happened until now. Because I needed to know more about music to learn more about Frank’s music and be able to play it.
P: You mentioned improvisation. Frank once wrote that improvisation is spontaneous composition… how are you dealing with that, are you improvising or thinking that was an composition at the time, or…
D: Well I think, you know, the way to incorporate it, you know, he called it – he did call it spontaneous composing, but he also thought of it as making air sculptures, and so that’s a whole other headspace to be in when you’re playing a guitar solo, and for me, I’m used to, you know, I can play this lick, or I can do this, and things were pattern-based on the guitar for me, until I started to expand my knowledge of things you know, and when I really started to learn some of the fundamentals. – it helped me understand what Frank was really doing – he would give himself, you know, a musical space to play around in that was broad enough that he could experiment – because he started as a drummer, his phrasing was very un-guitaristic, you know, and so he would, he liked to play particularly in [elidian mode or mixed elidian mode] you know, it’s a very satisfying sound, but before I actually really discovered that’s what he was doing, you know, I would learn sort of guitar licks and not know how to apply that. I mean you could know what the lick is, but if you don’t play it over the right chord that triggers the same emotional response, then it’s – you’re not really able to use the tools correctly, so you know, for me, the stuff that I would learn was like a lot of technique, and it was like using a bulldozer as an ice-cream scoop, you know it like “I can do all this crazy stuff but I don’t actually know how to do the thing that makes it work best in context and also shows off the technical side of what it is”.
So blending those elements is what I’ve been working on – it’s trying to have a sophisticated approach in terms of technique and guitar, but be musical, you know, but that only comes with maturity, it is about, you know, Frank, when he would play a solo, he would be saying something, it wasn’t about like “check it out, I’m playing really fast”, and there’s nothing wrong with that – I can really appreciate guitarists who have unbelievable technique – there’s a lot of them you know, and a lot of different styles of music, but it’s when you can use that technique effectively to say something musical that – that’s when it goes beyond an impressive party trick to being, you know, this memorable, musical thing.
P: Do you think from that point of view – I know you appeared on a couple of his albums- played a couple of solos…
D: I was like 17 or something, you know.
P: There was one where you did a thing with Steve Vai, you swapped solos with…how much influence did his guitarists have on you – did you ever almost physically take lessons from them…
D: I had the fortunate experience, you know, when I first started playing guitar, Steve Vai had just joined Frank’s band so he did show me some fundamental things of, you know, er, how to hold a pick, which scales to practice, and stuff like that, but I really learned a lot by ear, and by watching good players. I had the ability to, you know, or the good fortune to see a lot of good players up close, you know Eddie Van Halen who was a huge influence on me, you know, we became friends with him and you know so, the first time he came over, I made him play [Eruption] I made him play Mean Streets, and when you see what it is, and the fingerings, you know, it’s much easier…
P: Do you get more of the spirit when you see someone..how much more do you get just from seeing that person?
I think it makes a big difference in terms of, if you want to emulate the exact style and phrasing of the lick, if you can see it up close, you know, it definitely helps, because then you can figure out the ingredients that make it what it is. But each guitarist has really gotta find their own fingering for certain things you know, and a lot of guys really don’t focus on wanting to play something completely note for note, they just wanna get kind of the idea, and then apply whatever that is to what they like, you know.
But for me, I always liked to try to learn stuff note for note if I could, especially if it was something I really liked, and so as that applies to Frank’s music, now, I’m learning things on guitar that were never meant to be played on guitar, it’s very much the stunt guitar kind of …
P: Would Frank have hired you as stunt guitarist now do you think?
D: At this point I would’ve had a much better chance than I would’ve five, six years ago, but it’s only because I’ve been putting the time in and studying. I mean I’ve always had a good enough amount of technique to perform complicated pieces of music but it’s never been rigidly focused on…
P: What has been the most complex tune of Franks that you’ve played. What’s kicked your ass?
D: Of the things that I’ve been able to start working on, because we’re about to go into rehearsals, but I needed some time in the beginning. One of the things, and I’ve only had about a week and a half, two weeks to work on this, here’s a little part from [Inca Roads] and it was a [Marimba] part to begin with. I’ll play it for you slow, but it’s grouped in sevens, and that’s unusual for a guitar player, so it’s …I had to actually learn a different style of picking, which is that [Frank Gambale] style of picking…
P: Sweep picking kind of …
D: Yeah, so I’ll play it slow, but…
So, you know, at slow speed, it’s not really that difficult but it’s a lot of notes to remember, but when you play it in the context of the song, it’s faster…
And then there’s a time when it’s double time of that, so you know, I’m still working on getting up to that speed…
[plays faster still]
So, you know, something like that is, after three months of working on that, and you play it with the band and you hear it on [Marimba] guitar – which it’s never been played on guitar in Frank’s music. I just think it will be a really cool thing, ‘cause for me, those melodies stick in my head, you know, and they’re so signature, in terms of Frank’s idiosyncrasies as a composer, the rhythms, the note choices, and for them to come alive, centre stage on a guitar, I think will be really really cool.
P: How are you picking out the things that you wanna do? Are you just picking out parts and saying “that’s my part?
D: I think that there’s a lot of unison lines that are played on keyboard in [Marimba] you know, so it’s just adding one other texture to it, you know, so another thing that’s like that is this passage from [San Alfonso’s Pancake Breakfast] which is all alternate picking and it’s er…
So I mean I’m still working on getting all the kinks out of it, but when you see, you know, it’s not guitaristic at all, but the cool part is when you start learning that stuff on guitar, it just opens up the instrument, so when I’m going to be improvising and playing guitar solos, I will have more things to choose from overall, which has always been a goal of mine you know, I wanna be able to play, you know in the same, not necessarily the same level of improvisational ability as Frank because I still need years to grow into that, but to at least be playing and use some of the same tools that he used, and you know, and my own personality will come out in my own playing as well, but I can incorporate a lot of elements of Frank’s phrasing and stuff…
P: Are you doing anything note for note, I’m thinking Frank’s Watermelons in Easter Hay
D: That song is one that we won’t be performing, and only because it’s too emotional, I can’t even, I can’t even listen to that song, you know, without it..
P: What are Frank’s tunes that he’s playing? Are you playing what he played…
D: The only one that I know I’ll be playing note for note is from Peaches, and that’s a short little guitar solo in there, but I will incorporate phrases from some of the solos because they’re really cool, you know like things from [Inca Roads] or things from Black Napkins, things from [Zulu Lords], but it’s not my intention to go up there and try to emulate him note for note, you know, I wanna incorporate enough of the ingredients that he added into his playing into my own playing, ‘cause it will be a great thing to do.
But I mean a lot of that stuff comes from phrases, like you know, just the idiosyncrasies, you know, he does things that you know are like…
you know he has this thing where he likes to do a double bend you know [riff again] and it happens a lot with his [riffs again] and it’s little things that are like that…you know I always described – his picking was like a chicken, and his fingers were like the spider and it was the epic battle between the chicken and the spider, you know…
[p rattles off spider story]
P: Thinking about gear…a.what are your favourite of Frank’s tunes, and b.you favourite other tunes and guitarists, guitar porn stuff
D: Sure I mean, tunes of Franks, I mean I love the Black Page, I love [San Alfonso’s Pancake Breakfast], I love Inca Roads, I love Black Napkins, Watermelon and Easter hay, Dogbreath variations, um, G-Spot Tornado…er
P: Are you playing anything from Jazz from Hell on this…
D: We’re actually trying to work out G-Spot Tornado, but G-Spot Tornado the version that we’ll be doing is probably gonna be a hybrid of theYellow Shark version and Jazz from Hell, you know…
…So as far as other tunes by other people, I mean there’s not a lot of modern music that I’ve been compelled to purchase so I probly couldn’t give you any good guitar music examples…the most recent player that I’ve heard that I was really impressed by that I think is tremendous is Guthrie Govan – and so I’ll be very curious to hear his music in the future, what he gets up to. But then, I’m trying to think, you know I mean there’s players I really appreciate and like what they do, you know, like a guy like Eric Johnson you know, improv for him – it’s funny to me because I mean I’ve worked with him in the studio and I’ve seen him play live and he’s able to play in such a fluid manner that it almost unbelievably sounds like it’s all been worked out, and I’m not saying that in a bad way, I’m just saying it’s shocking that his playing is so fluid that it – he seems to know what he’s doing before he does it and that’s an incredibly fast thought process…
P: Is that something to which you aspire?
D: I would love to be able to know what something’s gonna sound like before I play it because you know, I have such a delayed reaction, I mean I literally only, you know when I’m playing you know, I hear it, you know, well after I’ve already finished playing, I’m like “yeah I probly could’ve done something different there”, you know, and a lot of times I’ve relied on happy accidents, but I would like to be able to, you know, use the tools more effectively, you know, so, but then you know you have the obvious, a guy like [Alan Holdsworth] who has just taken it to his own world and can do anything on the guitar, and [Frank Gambale ] is another great technician, you know, he’s very musical what he does, I don’t love the idiom as much, I’m not super fusion jazz you know, person, but I’m trying to like that stuff more ‘cause I do like some of the flavours that it presents, but overall, Frank always talked about jazz as being comedy, and he did have a great appreciation for jazz and certain kinds of jazz but there’s a quality that comes out in a lot of people when they’re playing jazz music where they’re trying to stick to what the traditions are, stick to what the rules are, so a lot of them don’t necessarily create their own voice, they’re just perpetuating something else, and it’s easy to do, but I think that’s one of the things he didn’t like about the structure of it, was that people were sort of taught to copy a thing, you know, and there are obviously those who didn’t – who went beyond that, but – but y’know there’s – we’re living in a time when, you know, being a virtuoso is not really respected in popular music, you know on the fringes of jazz and other kinds of rock, and whatnot, there’s people that like it, but as a collective, you know, percentage of the market – it’s less than one percent, you know,it’s like people don’t respond in the same way they used to – it used to be like “oh right here comes the guitar solo” and you loved hearing the guitar solo on a Led Zeppelin record or a Van Halen record or, but, you know, a guitar solo on a modern record is usually, you know, a noise solo, it’s not about being very musical, it’s about just kind of trying to create a special effect noise, you know.
P: Can you fill this in…I’m just wondering about cross-fertilisation of guitar style. Did did you teach Frank anything – is there anything that he took from you?
D: I’m not sure that I taught him anything, but he certainly taught me stuff, so…
P: So if there’s him as a guitarist, and you as a guitarist – what happens in the middle?
D: Er.. I think that, for me, you know, if I look at this, I mean the totality of what this is – if I can get just this much of frank’s playing to where I can utilise it and understand it, that will improve the totality of this.
If this becomes FZ right here, you know, and I am able to take this and have that, just filter it in over here, a little bit more over the next few years, you know, I’ll be much more satisfied with my ability, because, his ability to improvise and spontaneously compose is something that I think any musician would aspire to, and particularly now that I’m, you know, in the trenches, learning the music, you know, it’s just really exciting, you know, I would suggest that anybody that wants to become a better player, they just really need to challenge themselves, and Frank’s music is the most fertile grounds to say “now let me see what I’m really made of” ‘cause there’s very few bands that could even play even some of his least complicated songs. And we have the challenge of having to learn 40 or 50 of them in a three month period of time, so …
[Annoying man: cool can you wrap it there?]
P: I’ll just need to find out what guitars you’re going to be using…
D: It’s really all gonna be [SGs] on the tour.
P: You’re not using any of Frank’s?
D: They’re irreplaceable so I can’t take them on the road – I talked to Gibson about actually making a Frank Zappa model SG so that may happen, which would be really cool. But I associate, you know, Frank’s guitar playing mostly with an SG ‘cause when I was little that was the guitar that he would play the most.
P: Tuition stuff…can we use [Marimba] thing?
D: Er you would have to email me any requests but we’re definitely motivated to have more people attempt to learn the music and play the music so, as long as the transcription is correct, you know, we would likely grant rights to it, but we don’t really want it published in songbooks.
P: Absolutely not. Thank you very much.
D: Sure, no problem, thank you.
The phone interview:
In terms of his actual instruments, he had a bunch of different guitars, the one thing that they all had in common was that they all had very light strings and extremely low action, bizarrely low action, I’m surprised the guitars wouldn’t fret out. In the 70’s he was using 7’s for high e strings, by 1988 he had moved up the gauges a little bit, but all of his guitars were very unique because they had electronics built into them, completely different than what most people would consider using. The pre-amps has 18db output, 18db more gain than a normal guitar output, which, the way Frank used his equipment was he used the power section from the amplifier and sort of use the guitar more as a pre-amp, instead of fuzzing everything out with an amplifier pre-amp or pedals. But he did use certain effects and certain distortion things and whatnot, beside the pre-amp, there were certain parametric EQ’s which allowed him to – they were dual-concentric, two pots built into one,. And he was able to dial in the right frequencies for his tone and the reason those were important, if you listen to Frank’s recordings, he probably doesn’t have a sound which is a specific guitar sound which is on every different song, he would set up an arrangement for himself to be playing over, and he would create the guitar sound that would fit best over the musical background presented, so he was in a lot of ways mixing from the stage, which because of his ability as a composer and arranger for orchestra and all that stuff, he really knew the frequency spectrum, and which things to accentuate to make the guitar sound stick out, in a way that was always pleasant, so the eq’s on the guitars were very powerful, you could do extreme things with them, not that you would need to to get a good sound, but you could if you wanted to, he was always trying to do stuff, he used to put barcus berry pick-ups and things the early version in the piezo pick-ups, because he said the output of the guitar, you would hear the resonance of the guitar sooner than from a magnetic pick-up. So he was always wanting to get the dynamics and all of the personality, he liked hearing the bits of string-noise all of these kinds of things, and he would blend a clean signal into a dirty signal, almost all the time, so you hear that a lot when you hear some of his live recordings, it sounds like it’s multi-tracked guitar, but he would effect it, put a little delay on it or chorus, in the mid-seventies he built quite a futuristic rack that he spent a lot of money on, something close to thirty thousand dollars, and it had, it was basically all top-of the line studio recording equipment, as well as marshall and vox amplifiers, and then he had several guitars,…he was using a four-track tape machine as his slap-back delay, and he would return that in quad in the concert hall…that’s an extreme thing to do. He had something called harmonic energizers, I don’t know what company made them, which helped him get that nice feedback he got on chords and things, he was really a mad scientist when it came to sound, he really knew everything about the signal path, and he tried to make sure that the audio was the best that it could be for everything, recordings, guitars, sound, everything. He did things differently from a lot of people, on live stuff that he recorded on records, he would use a pignose, a battery-power pignose, and with the pre-amp in the guitar he was able to get extra sustain out of it, and get a nice room sound and put a couple of mikes up, especially on apostrophe and overnite sensation you hear some of those guitar sounds, and they’re really unique, mid-rangy cool rock guitar tones, that are pretty much unique to frank.
I think that if you try to compare him to other guitarists that are well-known for being a guitarist such as jimi hendrix, or EVH, it’s really not a fair comparison, because Frank wasn’t necessarily about guitar gymnastics, he was not really a technical per se, even though he had the ability to execute things that a lot of players would not even conprehend at all, musically or technically, but what I think the most important feature of Frank’s playing was his spontaneity and his ability to be musical over extreme rhythmic conditions, because he was a drummer, because he was a composer, he was always playing guitar as an instrument that was really to create melody, he was percussive with it too, he didn’t think in terms of ‘here’s my guitar lick’, this pre-composed guitar lick, he didn’t have any of those, it was the way an athlete responds to a situation, if you’re waiting to hit a baseball or playing a cricket game, someone’s throwing something at you you just react to what’s coming at you, and his ability as a musician to react to everything around him was remarkable. I remember seeing him at soundchecks playing a guitar solo and the band sounded great, but then he would stop and say no, you’re playing something over here that’s too much while I’m doing this. It’s stuff I wasn’t even focusing on because I was just hearing the guitar solo, but he’s hearing everything that’s going on while he’s playing a guitar solo. To me it was always weird because I knew that I was always in my own head when playing, I don’t know enough to react or to complement what’s going on.
Unless you’re really comfortable with your technique, and know exactly where you are on the neck, you can’t be totally free in the way that he was. The simplest way to sum it up is that he really was composing every time he played a guitar solo and he just had total freedom.
The hard part of it are some of the transitions, you tend to want to rush certain things…there are certain transitions that cause problems and make the phrasing a little bit weird, that section was, and still is, giving me a bit of a problem…I’ve been working out different fingerings for certain parts that are still giving me a bit of a problem. The Frank Gambale sweep picking makes it more legato and makes the notes ring out a little better, and I personally wouldn’t be able to alternate pick it, so the fingerings are a little bit more chord shapes then they are scale shapes.
I think that if you really pick out the things that make Frank’s music what it is, it really comes down to it’s a combination fo so many elements that he doesn’t just live in one thing, as a composer he’s got the classical background, he’s got the jazz background to know what creates those kinds of tensions and that colour, but he doen’t exclusively use any of those colours, he borrows a little bit from each thing. Which makes it very different, if you were to…an arranger would be able to pinpoint things, because there are tools of the trade, but just from my ear, he really didn’t subscribe to the traditions of any of the styles of music he would play, if he was writing classical music, it wasn’t supposed to sound like Mozart or beethoven or anything like that, even though he might have the same orchestral set-up, he would make them do thinsg that were completely different, because his music required something completely different. He really favoured a lot of percussion obviously that is one of the key elements of his music, perhaps the most important element, a great example is if you listen to the Live in New York record, they do three versions of the Black Page. The drum solo, which was the original version, then immediately following that, it plays the drum solo with the melody that was created for the part after the fact, the the thrid version is what he calls the easy disco version, its still not that easy by any stretch, but it elongates some of the parts, gives you a breather between some of the passage, and it plays over a 4-4 feel which makes you really listen to the deviations of therhythm, because there’s a 4-4 feel implied through the whole thing, but when the craziness happens you’re like, er…what just happened? I have just finished learning the BP, and there’s two impossibly difficult licks that I had to talk to Steve Vai about, and say what were you trying to do when you were learning this, and he said the only thing I can tell you is experiment with as many different fingerings as possible because some of that stuff, when you’re forced to perfom it live, you have to find something you can physically execute each time. I did had a hard time finding fingerings for some stuff, but I think I’ve settled on a few that ar at least, for the time being, allowing me to lay the parts as accurately as I can. As I continue to play it’ll get better. For anyone who really wants to hear something that is really unique to frank, and one of his signature pieces that you can’t define as jazz, classical or rock specifically, the BP is the perfect example, it has a bit of all of those elements, but when you know that it was a drum solo on its own, that’s how it was conceived, and then he put a melody to it, it’s just such a stunning achievement, it’s such a cool melody that’s so unpredictable, it really shows that he wasn’t really thinking about music as a guitar player or as any particular instrumentalist, these are melodies, this is how they’re supposed to be played, and they can be played on these instruments, on a variety of instruments, but you have to be fucking brilliant to play it.
Pastiches – lampoons that sum up the style they lampoon:
That was a unique ability of his, he definitely had a way to take things that were iconic, a style of music, basically what he liked to do, was take things that people know, and…put the eyebrows on it. Part of his whole concept with that is twisting it so you can see it in a different way, so taking any style of music beit country or jazz or whatever, he was able to show it to you in context and twist it enough to where you could laugh at it and be intrigued – he was aboe to take the essence of what it was, he could distill it and transform it, he had the ability to do that on so many levels – he enjoyed tweaking things on so many subversive levels, and to know how to do all that in so many ways, he probably didn’t even get to get to do half the stuf he thought about, it’s just weird how much stuff he was able to do.
Band composition – 10
I know that it was regarded as a mutiny – what was happening was one indivdual in the band had, I guess the best way to put it is an abrasive personality, and many of the other guys in the band were just tired of it, and chose to deal with it in a way that wasn’t good, when you’re on a tour, if you disrupt everything, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so there was not a lot of affection for the people that decided to bankrupt the tour, basically, because they couldn’t be professional. There’s a bigger picture of things, and it seems there was some prima donna behaviour happening things that caused issues and then the reactions…
Who’s in the new band?
We have asembled a band of players that we have yet to get a chance to start rehersals, that’s happening in the next ten days – these are local people in LA that are just getting started, we specifically were trying to find younger players, we wanted to have not only people that are motivated in a different way, because of thise age, and they never got the experience to see frank, and some of them weren’t that familiar with it, they just had the technical ability to perform it. That gives us the opportunity to shape them in the same way that F would have had the same opportunity to shape players, that was the opportunity we were looking for in putting the band together.
Keyboardist AARON ARNTZ, he’s 24, and what I liked about him, when he came in – we purposely structered the audition to give them as little time as possible with the music just to see how well they could transcribe it come back in and perform it. His task was to learn Inca Roads and the Black page and he had two days – so that’s a sisyphean task for anyone. The point was to see how much he could learn in a short period of time, and how accurate it would be. He learnt a shocking amount. This kid must have stayed up for forty hours, he came in with a great attitude like, ‘I got it’, and I was like, ‘let’s see it’, and he played through both songs, he didn’t get completely through the form on Inca roads, and he didn’t get all the notes exactly accurate in the BP but he played through all of the form of that, and I was fuckin shocked, this kid has the potential to be a monster. He’s now transforming himself into a Zappa robot, that’s the last email I got from him. I liked the enthusiasm and I was surprised at what he was a able to do at 14, he’d heard frank’s music but not lived frank’s music, a lot of the guys who can play this stuff have been listening for like 20 years. So, that was a good surprise, we found a saxaphonist who also plays flute, keyboard and sings, and she is 33, Sheila gonzalez, and she’s a great solosit, when she plays saxophone it’s a very stand-out solo style, she sings well, and she’s got the ability to cover multi-instrumental parts, we made her play Peaches, and she was doing it like a one-man band, she played some of the opening melodies…she would play keyboards, she would play sax, then a flute solo, then some clarinet, then some more sax. She was trying to do it and keep it all in time, we would never ask her to do that live on stage…maybe we should…but that was good because the funny part is that’s somebody who was thinking I gotta show them I can do this, it wasn’t like a gimmick, it was, this is probably what they’re expecting of me, so I’ve got to work on this…that to me was hilarious, and also I think from the people that did poorly, it showed the real difference between the, some people walked in and barely had any of it, and expected that if they could tell us a story of how they once met Steve Vai or whatever, we would be like ‘yeah, that’s cool,’ but ‘No…’ it was weird to me that someone would come in extremely prepared and someone would come in so ill-prepared and try and talk ther way into something, and really have nothing to back it up. We did have quite a contrast. I knew that first of all…we were looking for people for about 6 weeks. Before we even started I said I bet you we get around 15 people, who even apply to audition…we got 16, and only 5 were good.
Stepping into Frank’s shoes?
I don’t really pretend that I’m doing exactly what F would do, a lot of people try to create a story because it seems like an easy fit, he’s passing the baton, whatever…I don’t look at it like that. I love the music, I’ve always loved the music, I want to play the music as accurately as I can and follow the tradition of what’s there and what’s obvious, how he worked. I have my own personal experience of seeing how he worked and how he worked with me, and this stuff, so I’ve course I will incorporate that wealth of experience into this, but I’m not trying to impersonate or re-create something, neither in the whole process and especially not onstage, but it’s only fair that some of it would rub off on me…
It’s clear what he would have had to say about that, he mentions it in interviews and in his book,. To the extent that people would say ‘how would you like to be remembered, what is your legacy, whatever, and he would say, I wouldn’t. And for me, I totally understand what he’s saying and why he would say something like that but because I just really care about the music – not that he didn’t – I have a different perspective, I want him to be remembered for all of the things that he was able to do – therer’s too many things to mention overall, but the things that amaze me about him was just the sheer output, and the complexity of everything he was working on, and it’s not output for the sake of output, he really in over 80 albums was making music that stood the test of time, it always sounds current, your can put on something he recorded in 1969 and it sounds, you listen to it and go that must have freaked people out so bad at the time, and it’s still ahead of its time, in terms of recording techniques and other things. When you hear it now in context of when it came out, you can see how he would he wouldn’t like to be remembered, because he’s contantly been frustrated by the lack of understanding, he did give people the benefit of the doubt, he did find an audience that enjoyed his music, but in general, I think he dealt with a lot of frustration because he always wanted to do something that was of the highest quality, even if it was something that was incredibly stupid, he still had to make sure it was recorded incredibly well, for me he was a mad scientist on so many levels, a great observe of all things musical and otherwise, and his perspective would always leave you … you can learn so much because he looked at things in such a differen way and sometimes it takles you a couple of years before you realise that I can’t believe he was doing that so many years ago, the more you know about frank’s music, and him, the more you can appreciate all the levels he was working on, for him there was continuity in everything, and that’ one of the coollest things about music and his sense of humour and everything, is that you can take incongruous things and make them fit together in absurd ways, and that’s how he would show people that new perspective on things, because he would take elements of things no-one would think could go together and make it work. and he did that consistently throughout his career, and that’s again it’s such a hard question – he did so much in such a short period of time, it can never be duplicated.
Archive stuff? 26
There’s a lot of stuff we’re hoping to releae, but what people ned to know is that our operation is very small, and each budget is extremely tight, we can’t work on multiple projects all the time, and we have beem over the past 10-11 years isolating certain things and deciding we want to work on this and altering the studio – we had it refurbished over the last few years, and now we’re able to get to some tapes we couldn’t even listen to before, the answer is yes, resoundingly, we have many things from the vault we wish to bring to people’s attention, there are tapes from tours of bands that really haven’t been exploited – exploit is not the word, we don’t mean it in financial terms – the band itself hasn’t appeared on a lot of records, I’m talking tours from 80, 81 that have Vinnie Colaiuta and Steve Vai, right on the precipice of the new decade, they’re still playing stuff from the seventies, and even some from the 60s, some of the stuff he was moving towards in the 80s and you could start seeing the whole political side getting reshaped again for the landscape that was being created for by the Reagan administration, and whatnot…there’s stuff that I’m excited about from all different periods, there’s even a song we’re going to be performing in the show which has never been released, it’s a great instrumental, it’s going to be on its own record, which can’t give the name away yet, because that wouldn’t do us any good…there’s one part in the show where people will get to here a really great instrumental there’ve not heard before.
It’s going to be a real challenge, I was sitting at my computer the other day trying to piece together a set-list, so I can get an idea of what some of the shows will be like, It’s pretty hard in a two-hour period to get all the things I want to do, and it would be exhausting, too!
Saint Alphonso, is another brutal thing on guitar which has to be mostly alternate picked, with a couple of sweep elements here and there, and to get that up to tempo at 128, ‘good luck, my friend!’ I had that phenomenon happen to me, where I just stopped playing because I was uninspired by any of the music or guitar stuff that was out there, so I started looking to do other things, and it was only in the last couple of years when I started getting really into frank’s stuff that it mad me want to try to work on all that stuff agin, and enjoyed the process, because I took it as far as I could tak it in terms of the rock stuff I was doing, but at a certain point I was more interested in the approach that Frank took, and have memorable musical moments, as opposed to technical things, which are cool and fun and whatever, but it’s relly just like a party trick at this point. a lot of people don’t even care, they don’t understand…(st aphonzo’s) it’s a real fun thing to get under your fingers, and when you look at it, while you’re playing, you’re like, ‘how did he come up with these things?’ even the little passage in Montana, that thing…that’s a bitch…that’s another fine piece of work…
© Pete Langman 2004 – please ask nicely before you steal it!