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Dweezil Zappa finds deeper connection in dad’s music

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Since Dweezil Zappa started the band Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006, he estimates he’s covered nearly 400 of his late father’s songs. But for his current tour, the guitarist and singer says he wanted to “go a little deeper.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of “Freak Out!,” the first album by Dweezil’s dad, experimental musician and guitar legend Frank Zappa. Dweezil Zappa has covered “Freak Out!” tunes before, but for the record’s semi-centennial he wanted to tackle tracks that even his dad never attempted to replicate live — like the spoken vocal collage “It Can’t Happen Here.”

“It’s atonal,” Dweezil Zappa says. “It’s just one of these very strange things, and we’re recreating that. Trying to learn something that doesn’t have a pitch reference is always interesting.”

But learning the nuances of his father’s massive, idiosyncratic body of work is nothing new to Dweezil Zappa, who spent two years studying his dad’s catalog before starting Zappa Plays Zappa. A remarkable guitar player in his own right, Dweezil Zappa says he’s developed “quite a mental process” to filter his own musical ideas through his father’s “vocabulary.”

“I was always pretty technically proficient at a lot of different styles of playing and picking and executing complicated things, but when I got into really picking apart what (Frank Zappa) was doing, it opened up a whole new world of what I could then do,” Dweezil Zappa says.

Dweezil Zappa’s live show also incorporates some of his original compositions, although he says those have been profoundly shaped by his father’s influence, too. Frank Zappa even directly participated in the creation of one track on “Via Zammata’,” Dweezil Zappa’s most recent album.

Zappa said his father gave him the lyrics to the song “Dragon Master” in the late ’80s while they were on tour in Europe, encouraging the younger Zappa to compose music to his words. Almost three decades later, Dweezil Zappa responded by setting his father’s over-the-top lyrics to an equally outrageous heavy-metal accompaniment.

“If you are a metal fan, if you really love heavy metal, there’s no apparent joke in this,” Dweezil Zappa says. “This is a bona fide, face-melting metal lyric … But if you are not a metal enthusiast, the jokes are very apparent and very obvious. I wanted it to walk that fine line between, as Spinal Tap would say, ‘stupid and clever.’ ”

When Dweezil Zappa arrives in Detroit, his tour, originally dubbed “Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa,” will now be branded “Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants.” That’s due to a nasty public dispute between Dweezil Zappa and his brother, Ahmet Zappa, who took over the Zappa Family Trust after the siblings’ mother, Gail, died last year.

Musician Frank Zappa, frontman of the Mothers of Invention, recorded more than 60 albums before he died in 1993.

Dweezil Zappa says he received a letter from Ahmet Zappa’s attorney, warning that he could be sued for up to $150,000 each time he performs using Frank Zappa’s name. Ahmet Zappa has denied Dweezil Zappa’s claim, stating that Dweezil Zappa only need pay a $1 annual fee to use Frank Zappa’s name.

Dweezil Zappa cheekily changed his act’s name in response, and he says he’ll no longer sell ZFT merchandise on his tour. The latter decision ends a years-long argument with his mother about division of proceeds from merchandise sales. Dweezil Zappa says he hopes these “confusing and unpleasant” struggles with his family are now fully behind him.

“I really don’t want the drama of that to overshadow Frank’s music,” he says. “I started doing all of this to share Frank’s music with the fans and new fans. It gives me an opportunity to have a continuing relationship with my dad through learning more about the music every year that I do it.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Dweezil

Zappa

7 p.m. Tue.

Royal Oak Music Theatre

318 W. Fourth, Royal Oak

Tickets $35-$75

(248) 399-2980

axs.com