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Dweezil Zappa On Dad's Music: We Treat It 'Like It's Classical Music'


When I first heard this song, it reminded me of Frank Zappa.


MCEVERS: That kind of weird, unpredictable prog rock the late musician is known for. The song is called "Funky 15," but it's not Frank Zappa. It's his son, Dweezil, on his new album. The album is a tribute to his dad and his own experiment where he tries out all kinds of genres. In some ways, Dweezil Zappa was born to play music. On his birth certificate, under religion, his dad wrote musician. I asked him if he ever felt like he had a choice to be anything else when he grew up.

DWEEZIL ZAPPA: Oh, sure. I mean, growing up, I was obsessed with Jacques Cousteau. So I was really interested in everything under the sea. But then I saw the movie "Jaws," and that ruined it.

MCEVERS: That was it.

ZAPPA: Yeah. I was like, I'm not going in there. That's not for me.

MCEVERS: Nope. Done.

ZAPPA: I really wasn't thinking about music up until I was 12. That's when I got interested in it. I mean, I liked what he did, but I definitely thought, wow, what my dad does is really hard. You know, you have to know a lot of stuff to play that music.

MCEVERS: Right, right.

ZAPPA: It was like training for the Olympics, you know?


ZAPPA: Also, the thing that was interesting, though, was that I didn't really know anything about the rest of the world of music until I was about 12. I didn't hear the radio until then, you know? So I had only heard my dad's music, whatever he was writing or working on or what he was listening to recreationally, which was always something, you know, a little bit obscure - you know, Stravinski or Webern or some Bulgarian Women's Choir or something that just wasn't what you would hear on the radio. So when I actually heard the radio, my first thought was, where's the rest of it? Like, there wasn't enough other stuff in the music. It was missing all these different rhythms and instruments and...

MCEVERS: Is that why you wanted to do it, because you wanted to fill in the blanks?

ZAPPA: Well, in 1981, '82, hard rock was the most popular music in the world. And there were guitarists that were technically very, very skilled that were also being pretty creative in terms of the sound. And I was interested in learning how do that because my dad was a great guitarist, but he was playing stuff that seemed much harder to understand.

So this other music from Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads, even though it was hard to do, I wanted to learn that stuff note for note. That was my training ground, you know? And then I thought, well, one day, I'd like to play my dad's music and the hard melodies that are in that, but I just knew that that was going to really take a lot of effort.

MCEVERS: Yeah. I mean, for more than a decade now, you've been touring and playing your dad's music.

ZAPPA: Yeah.

MCEVERS: And it's one thing to be like us and to be a fan of Frank Zappa's music, but I feel like to get to know his music on a molecular level like that - I wonder, what has it done to your brain (laughter) to, like, really know it and understand it.

ZAPPA: This music is totally visceral. I mean, you - if you're in it, I mean, it's like - if you raised a tiger from a cub, this tiger is really sweet and friendly as a tiger-kitten. But you know, it's a tiger. It's going to want to bite your head off at some point. You know, that's what this music is like. You can be around it your whole life, but when you try to play it, it's hard, you know?

MCEVERS: Is there an example of a song that really kind of helps sum that up?

ZAPPA: Like "The Black Page" or "Inca Roads," you know? So we've been touring this whole year playing the album "One Size Fits All," which has "Inca Roads" as the first song.


ZAPPA: So out of the gate, one of the hardest songs ever, you know? I mean, I still - I practice it all the time, but it's still the hardest thing in the world.

MCEVERS: Your new album is called "Via Zammata." Did I say that right?


MCEVERS: There is a song - there's a song on the album that's called "Dragon Master..."


MCEVERS: ...That you wrote with your father.


MCEVERS: Can we listen - I just want to hear a little bit of it.

ZAPPA: Sure.


SHAWN ALBRO: (Singing) The dragon's head (unintelligible). His rancid breath sets fire to things. (Unintelligible). Destruction follows all around. They cry...

MCEVERS: So how did you guys write this together? How did that happen?

ZAPPA: Well, the song itself, as you can tell, is quite a heavy metal kind of a song.

MCEVERS: That's right.

ZAPPA: And it's the only song on the record that has that kind of sound, you know? So he wrote the lyrics in 1988 and gave me the lyrics. He says, I want you to write the music to this. And the lyrics are completely preposterous. I mean, it's about a dragon master, you know? So, I mean, it's - but what I wanted to do was make it a legitimate thing so that it didn't sound like a joke. I wanted it to sound like it was really put into the right context so that it was real.

MCEVERS: Like legit metal.

ZAPPA: Yeah, and so I got this guy Shawn Albro to sing it, and he's actually cousins with Ronnie James Dio, one of the greatest metal singers of all time.

MCEVERS: Arguably.

ZAPPA: Yeah. And so one of the funny things though was that Ronnie James Dio would add extra syllables to words...


ZAPPA: ...That didn't need to have an extra syllable.

MCEVERS: Give us an example, please.

ZAPPA: So that what I was saying to Shawn in the studio. I said, OK, there's a verse where it says, hate the day, hate the light. I need you to add an extra syllable to light. And he said, what are you talking about? I'm like, hate the day, hate the light, you know? And he said, oh, you mean make it cool. Yeah. You know, so I was like, yes.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) So awesome.

ZAPPA: Got to add the flavor there, you know?



ALBRO: (Singing) Hate the day, hate the light. The dragon master rules the night.

MCEVERS: Do you get tired of talking about your dad?

ZAPPA: No. I mean, for me - I know a lot of people about this, but I am a fan of the music. And I look at it almost like an old-school Italian family business, you know? Like, if you make, you know...

MCEVERS: That's great.

ZAPPA: ...The best muffins, you know, you keep that recipe or whatever - whatever it is, you know, you keep that going. I want people to know more about it, so the one thing I can do to help people get a chance to experience the music is to play it. And we treat the music like it's classical music, like we're a repertory ensemble performing these pieces as they are written.

You know, people say, oh, it's a cover band; it's a tribute band. Well, then what do you call an orchestra because they're playing music that is written by a composer that, you know, could be 400 or 500 years old. It's not written by anybody in the orchestra. It's a tribute band, you know? They're playing this music that's written by somebody that has done some important work.

So basically, I'm not out there trying to pretend to be my dad or anything of that stuff. We just say thanks for coming, you know? We're going to play you a bunch of music from throughout my dad's career. Hope you like it.

MCEVERS: Well, Dweezil Zappa, thank you so much.

ZAPPA: Thank you.

MCEVERS: That's Dweezil Zappa, who tours with Zappa Plays Zappa, a band that plays his father, Frank Zappa's, music. And he has a new album out called "Via Zammata."


ZAPPA: (Singing) When the millionaire's son spends his father's money... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.