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Son of reinvention: How Dweezil is keeping Zappa legacy alive

Culture

Few people who went through adolescence in the 1980s could lay claim to cutting their garage band’s first single in a professional recording studio before they had hit their teens … especially with guitar god Eddie Van Halen at the helm.

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But when you grow up as the son of one of the most influential, eclectic and multi-faceted experimental musicians of all time, Frank Zappa, weird things are bound to happen in your childhood, not the least of which would include being named Dweezil.

“That was our first experience doing any kind of recording,” Dweezil Zappa said of the song ‘My Mother is a Space Cadet’, which he co-wrote with older sister Moon, then 14, and guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, who was then a member of Frank Zappa’s band. “Edward Van Halen produced it and he was in the studio with us, so it was an interesting experience to have that as your first experience recording at 12 years old.”

What’s equally interesting is the fact the equally off-kilter b-side, ‘Crunchy Water’, was co-written by the guitarist’s then-11-year-old bandmate Greg Kurstin – the same Greg Kurstin who has picked up seven Grammys over the past four years for his work as a co-writer and producer for the likes of Adele, Beck, Sia and Tegan and Sara.

“We went to school together and we used to play after school, so this was kind of our little teenage band,” Dweezil told InQueensland.

Dweezil has been playing pretty much constantly in the 38 years since he released that first 7-inch, as both a session guitarist and a solo artist, and he’s been touring Australia for much of that time.  He made his first trip here as a 20-year-old when he was invited to play guitar for Jenny Morris when the New Zealand-born singer was touring her multi-platinum debut album Shiver.

“I had done some shows playing guitar for her because I knew her from INXS when they were playing in the States,” Dweezil explained matter-of-factly of Morris, who contributed backing vocals to INXS’s international breakthrough album The Swing and its subsequent international tour.

“It was my first foray into going to Australia and I loved all the places I saw on that tour and was always looking for reasons to come back, so anytime we get a chance to come down we always love it.”

His latest reason to come back is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his father’s solo debut album Hot Rats – which was dedicated to the-then newborn Dweezil upon its release in 1969 – with a tour that kicks off at Brisbane’s Fortitude Music Hall in early April.

Dweezil performed on several of his father’s albums and tours before his death in 1993 and has spent much of the past 15 years his father’s musical legacy alive. He first brought his acclaimed Zappa plays Zappa tour to Australia in 2007 but admitted playing Hot Rats in its entirety has had its own set of challenges.

“For a record like this that has a lot of improvisation on it, the real challenge is to decide how to approach that,” he said.

“For example, the song ‘Son of Mr Green Genes’, that has about a six-and-a-half-minute guitar solo on it, but what he played on that song is so specific and so right for the song and so very evocative of that era and the album, I decided to learn that one note for note.

“Then a song like ‘Willie the Pimp’, typically for him, if he was playing a live show, he would never try to recreate or play what he played on the record, so the times he played ‘Willie the Pimp’, it sounded nothing like the album version, so for me, I go somewhere in between.

“I’ve recreated the sound he used on the record, so it’s very evocative of the record, but it allows me to play things he actually played but also play my own ideas but have them be in context.”

“It’s a fairly small band, it’s six people, but with technology, you can do a lot of things because keyboards can stack different sounds so you can play multiple sounds at once, so we’re actually able to get quite a bit of the sound design and texture of the album to sound really evocative of the album itself.”

Dweezil Zappa won a Grammy in 2009 for Zappa Plays Zappa’s cover of the song ‘Peaches En Regalia’.

Dweezil won the Best Rock Instrumental Grammy in 2009 for Zappa Plays Zappa’s rendition of Hot Rats fan favourite ‘Peaches En Regalia’, a song he said means a lot to a lot of people, including me”.

“It was a good thing, because that song is probably one of the most well-known and well-liked songs of my dad’s.  It’s such a unique instrumental, it’s really like its own movie and I think for that song to get recognition and for people to hear it and think ‘OK, great, this is a nice version of that song’, that was good.”

When asked if his father had imparted any words upon him that have stuck with him, Dweezil is quick to name two particular pieces of advice.

“I think probably the one that was the best bit of common sense was ‘don’t be an asshole’,” he laughed. “In this day and age there are so many people who are incompetent and there’s a weird sense of craziness and entitlement and a lot of the time people are not so nice, so I think that’s always been a good bit of information, to not be an asshole.

“He also said that in the music industry, there’s always going to be some entity that’s going to try to force a compromise, so if you are looking for excellence, you’re going to be disappointed in the music industry.

“He tried to avoid that as much as possible, which is why he ended up having his own record company and owning his own masters and doing what he wanted to do, so he only had to answer to himself.”

Dweezil Zappa, Hot Rats Live 50th anniversary tour, is at Fortitude Music Hall on April 9, and Byron Bay Bluesfest April 10. Visit bluesfesttouring.com.au for details

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