How to Make Automatic Music: An Interview with
It seems strangely appropriate to be talking to Dweezil Zappa the day after the November Presidential election; considering his father, the late guitarist and avant garde rock pioneer Frank Zappa, once had plans to run his own third party campaign for President. I figure that bringing this up is a good way to ease into a conversation about Zappa’s new album, Automatic, a mostly instrumental and wildly experimental guitar rock adventure that’s his first solo project in ten years. When I mention this strange coincidence of timing to Zappa, he goes right into it.
Dweezil tells me that what’s even weirder is his mother, Gail Zappa, has actually become close friends with Tipper and Al Gore “in a big way,” and that she’s in Tennessee at the moment, supporting the Democratic party in what will turn out to be a months-long, mortifying horrorshow of vote recounts and political corruption. “People don’t quite understand that friendship,” he explains, “because of the big brouhaha over the PMRC way back when. But you know, that was a misguided attempt to get parents to realize that they should be more responsible with their kids. Unfortunately, at that time, the PMRC was trying to do something that took legislature in an area that it didn’t need to go, in terms of telling you what you could and could not write about and possibly making it illegal to write certain music. That kind of talk was bandied about, and Frank was vehemently defending that kind of thing. He had a funny comment that said they were creating a problem akin to treating dandruff by decapitation. Basically, it was a misguided attempt to do the right thing. In any case, over the years, my Mom has been pretty friendly with Tipper and very friendly with the Democratic Party. So, she’s actually in Nashville with the Gore camp. We’re all anxious to see what happens.”
Well, we all know what happened and we all know how much it sucks, so let’s not even go there. Dweezil Zappa was a really cool guy, and a great talker and here’s some of the stuff we talked about.
Automatic is very beautiful, but also very schizophrenic, like a scrapbook or a garage sale sort of album. Is that something that just seemed natural to you?
You know, I didn’t really even set out to make a record, to begin with. The record got formed around the fact that I recorded that version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” which was originally supposed to be part of the soundtrack, if not promotion, of the Jim Carrey film. They didn’t end up using it, for whatever reason, and I said, well I’m not going to let the opportunity go by to put it out at Christmas time anyway. So, I put some other tracks together, some things that were unfinished from an older period and then some new things.
Were you consciously going for a mostly instrumental album?
I was trying to make an album which was predominantly instrumental, which I hadn’t done before. [I wasn’t] trying to make a record that’s all about flash guitar playing, although I enjoy flash guitar playing. The guys that make guitar instrumental albums focus everything on playing as many notes as possible, and that’s all fine and dandy, but it can be too much of a good thing. I had wanted to have a little bit of a sense of humor and offer up some different textures. That was the main thing. I wanted it to have some repeat listening value that people can enjoy. I ended up having some things that I challenged myself on in different ways. The [songs] that are largely arranged with many different takes of guitars — “The Grinch,” “Hawaii Five-O,” the stuff from Carmen — all those things are very difficult to do because I don’t read music and I had to learn all of those things by ear [laughs]. I had to sit there and learn each instrument part that I wanted to learn — the horn part, the flute part, the strings, whatever. I would learn all that stuff and then I’d have to learn the harmony that supported it. Those were like putting together a crazy jigsaw puzzle, so I had to do it in very small [stages]: four or five notes at a time, learn and record. It was a complicated task on that end.
Then there were other things, where I wanted to do improvisations that allowed me to do something that I wouldn’t normally do. For example, tuning the guitar in a way where I would have no idea what it was doing when I put my finger down. You’re obviously going to play a little different than you normally would if you have no idea what note to expect. I did that with that acoustic piece, “Secret Hedges,” and that turned out pretty cool for just tuning up a guitar and playing the first thing off the top of my head. I liked those little experiments, and I probably will attempt it again in the future. Basically, most of the things that I play [are] based on patterns that are familiar to me. A lot of guitar players do that. But when you take that out of what you’re used to — because the patterns change when the strings are rearranged, because of the tuning — suddenly you have this weird thing and it’s harder to figure out what the hell is going on.
The record definitely bears out repeated listening, and for the wildly experimental way in which you say it was recorded, it all sounds “right,” you know what I mean? It’s not like, “what is this dissonant crap?”
I didn’t want to make it sound like it wasn’t supposed to have melody, you know? I don’t like dissonance for the sake of dissonance, myself personally. But it allows for some things that are unusual to occur. For example on “Secret Hedges,” I did improvise the acoustic part, but added a couple of things where I knew what I was doing after the fact, to support certain harmonies that were created in the piece. The only thing that is completely improvisational and untouched is the song “Schnook,” which just happened, and then you hear the tape end while we’re playing. The whole spoken part just came in and out on it’s own [through the amp].
Did that freak you out?
Well, we were just getting ready to play, and then the talking started, so we said, ‘Quick, turn on the tape!” so we could get a little bit of that. Then it would just sort of come in and out.
It’s very Spinal Tap-esque, like the airplane signals they got when they played at the Air Force base.
I like what you said about engineering the record yourself so you could “get the sounds you heard in your head on tape.” Did that happen the way you hoped it would?
Yeah, for the most part. You know, engineering is something I’m still learning and getting better at. There are always different experiments you can try to make something sound a certain way. But, prior to doing it on my own, you know, you’re supposed to ‘take the word for it’ from whoever else you’re working with, and I hadn’t worked with engineers that I thought were really making it sound like what I wanted. You know, everybody’s got their own way of doing things, and there’s no set rules. There are certain guidelines that people want to abide by in terms of level-to-tape and whatnot. But everybody hears things different. I think I’ll continue to do more of my own engineering as well as do some production stuff for other people.
You do make continuous reference to not sight reading and learning everything by ear. Does that make the creative process more fun for you, or is it equally frustrating?
I would love to be able to learn to read music, but it’s like learning another language, you know. Technically, I could probably read the notes off the page, I just can’t do it as fast as I could learn it by ear.
If someone had never ever heard of Frank Zappa, and had no idea who you are, which one or two tracks on Automatic would you play for them to give them the best idea of what you’re all about?
Just for a crash course in what I’m all about, I think I would probably have them listen to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and the song “Automatic,” because those are two of the most easily understood songs. “The Grinch” is a good example of a well-known and popular song with my sense of humor and twist in the way the arrangement works. And then “Automatic” has some strange phrasing and melodies on top of what would otherwise be somewhat normal. Usually [I like] a little bit of a juxtaposition, I tend to mix elements in a strange way and I like to have something seem like it’s familiar but then have something a little bit weird on top of it.
Do you think that people maybe expect you or give you license to be wacky because your dad was so subversively humorous?
I don’t think a lot of people really know that much about my dad’s music. I think the average person would think that he did almost “Weird Al” Yankovic-style music, because they hear of songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Valley Girl” or something like that. I don’t know that they know the complexity and the depth of the music. But from the people who do know the complexity and the depth of the music… I don’t know what their expectations of my music are, but my feeling is that if anyone should be allowed to sound like Frank, it should be me. By the same token, most of my music that I’ve recorded prior to this album doesn’t resemble Frank’s music at all. I think this record, perhaps more than any other, has elements that are most like Frank. I really don’t understand the comparisons and things that people make, a lot of times, based on their expectations. I take things at face value, I just go “Okay, here it is and what do I think of it?” I think it would be better if there were more people who listen to things without a preconceived notion of what it is, based on who’s making it.
Well, I first discovered Frank Zappa when I was about 15, listening to Just Another Band From LA and then there was this intense exposure to Freak Out when I was in college.
Well, you’re one of the braver souls.
Then I remember when you did My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama — seeing the video on Headbanger’s Ball — and thinking you were a great guitarist but that you also had that wacky thing going on. You know, you had your dad’s sense of humor.
Well, having a sense of humor is important. Frank made a record, and posed the question, “Does humor belong in music?” I think it does, considering the fact that so many people think of themselves as “Artistes,” and all this crap, where they take it so seriously. I think it’s fine to take what you do seriously, but taking yourself so seriously is obnoxious. That’s where a little bit of humor can go a long way, but, at the same time, some people misunderstand that. Then they think of [your music] as a novelty act because (adopting different voice) “Oh, it’s slightly funny. He must not really care about what he does.” I think that’s stupid as well.
Well, anyone who was really paying attention to what you’re doing would not think that. You’re so obviously talented, and you do so many different things besides music — TV, movies, voice-overs. What I wanted to ask you is, of all the non-music projects you’ve been involved with, what was your favorite?
I don’t know that I’ve had my favorite project yet. I’ve had a lot of chances to do things that are fun and funny. I typically only look at it in terms of if it’s a chance to do something that gives me a little creative challenge, no matter what it is. It doesn’t have to be in front of a camera or music related. Just anything where you can use your brain in a creative way is fun and worth doing, for me. I don’t think I’ve had opportunities to do the things exactly they way I would do them if I had the ultimate opportunity. We’re still looking for ways to make certain things happen.
We had a situation with the show, Happy Hour, where my brother and I came into that show replacing a host that fell out. We became two hosts, and added music and all of this stuff. It was just starting to find the audience that we were trying to steer it towards, but the producers just didn’t have the same vision as we did. Ultimately, the show ended up being taken off the air, but nobody actually knew why, since it was doing well. It was top ten a few times in the ratings for the network that it was on, USA. You’d figure that would be good, but I don’t know.
I liked doing the voice [of Ajax] on Duckman. I’d like to do more of the cartoon, voice-over thing. I have fun doing things that keep me entertained [laughs]. That’s basically it. Hopefully. I’ll get another chance to do something with my brother where we can actually do it the way that we want to do it. The closest thing to that are the appearances that we’ve made on Conan O’Brien. We’ve been able to go on there and do exactly what we wanted a few times. You know, it’s all based on nothing — not promoting anything — just going on and being stupid. We made an appearance where John Tesh was on the same show and we coerced him into playing a Black Sabbath song. So, if you’re a viewer and you’re just tuning in, you’re like “Oh my god, the end of the world has swiftly approached.” Because you’re thinking, this is the weirdest and most wrong thing on television: John Tesh coming from behind a curtain with a back-lit, smoke screen kind of thing going on, and asking us [adopting deep, super-cool voice] “Hey, you guys know any Sabbath?” and then playing “The Wizard.” That’s the kind of thing I’d like to see more of on television, or have the chance to do; just mix people together in ways that you wouldn’t see. I like to show things out of context, that’s a big part of the sense of humor that I have and that my whole family shares.
“Fwakstension” sounds like very ’70s Euro-prog rock, like some German art band or early Genesis. Have you listened to that kind of music at all?
I haven’t listened to much of that. Where that song comes from is a song on my third album, the Confessions of a Deprived Youth album, a song called “Fwak.” I just extended the theme of the intro to that song and made it into this longer instrumental. The thing about that is it’s two-handed chord tapping; I’m never using a pick and I’m always using both hands on the neck throughout that whole song. It was really more of this bizarre pattern that grew and grew and went out of control. Rhythmically, it displays my fine sense of no sense of rhythm. Some people would hear it and go “Wow, that’s so complex, why did you write it that way?” But unfortunately, that’s just the way I hear things (laughs). I tap my foot all wrong all the time. I think I either consistently feel things in 5 or 7 as opposed to standard 4/4 time. I think that probably has a lot to do with my father’s music, because he always had odd time signatures for a lot of things. In the case of “Fwakstension,” I wanted the drums, and to have some support here and there, to make the whole band be playing what the guitar is doing.
A similar concept came together for the song “Purple Guitar.” Ultimately, when people hear [that song] they might think “This is a long song with lots and lots of guitar playing,” but the joke of that song is that it takes one simple part, and at the end of the phrase of the simple part, one new part keeps being added. There’s always a new guitar lick until it becomes the whole band playing the whole guitar solo. If you listen to it again, you’ll see how it keeps growing, building and getting longer and longer.
“Purple Guitar” is actually my favorite song on the record so that’s cool to know.
My dad saw us play live a few times, and that was his favorite song. We used to close with it, but he said we should open with it, so sometimes we would, based on his recommendation. The crazy thing is, when we used to practice and play live shows, we got pretty good at that song and we would play it at the normal tempo that you hear [on the record] and then sometimes we would play it at double time. Some of the fastest parts were impossible to play, but we tried anyway just because it was hilarious. I mean, you had to brace yourself to try to play it as fast as you could. It was pretty funny.
Do you think people will read the liner notes of the CD and wonder “Who is Dick Cinnamon?”
That’s a big reason why I like to use a name like Dick Cinnamon, so people will have a fascination. They’re going to try to dial that phone number and call Dick Cinnamon, and I wish them luck reaching Dick Cinnamon. Dick Cinnamon is a name that I think is a great executive name.
It does roll off the tongue.
It’s corporate America at its finest, and getting put on hold while trying to reach Dick Cinnamon is probably almost anybody’s personal Hell. That’s why, for that song, I wanted to make “Hold Music,” but I needed something to create [the context of] why there was hold music, hence the phone call to Dick Cinnamon’s office. The best part is when Lisa [Loeb, Dweezil’s girlfriend, who plays the part of the secretary on the song] interrupts me and you can sense my real frustration of being interrupted. It’s hilarious because that happens all the time: You’re just trying to get one question out and they just go “Hold please,” right in the middle of what you’re saying.
How did you and Lisa meet?
On television. I interviewed her on MTV. She was promoting her last record, Firecracker, and then we just ended up talking about doing some work together playing some music and I did a little tour with her. It was funny, because at that time, I had pretty much stopped playing guitar. There was no music that I liked, there were no guitar players that I liked or anything. But she asked me to play some music with her, and it was a bit of a challenge. I hadn’t done anything like that before, where I was just accompanying someone in a way that is not my normal style of guitar playing. I got re-inspired to do music in a different way. We worked on some music for her new record as well.
Tell me about that Ozzy Tribute you and Lisa worked on, where you did “Goodbye to Romance.” What was that experience like?
That was a good thing. I always loved Ozzy Osbourne music. Lisa really didn’t know anything about him, but I had been asked to participate on that record and I thought it would be fun to have Lisa sing an Ozzy song, because nobody would be expecting that. I finally convinced them to let me do it and I think the cover remains very true to the original, but it’s Lisa singing [laughs]. We did it the same way, we double-tracked her vocals the same way Ozzy double-tracks his vocals and I play the guitar solo pretty much note for note, except adding one or two things of my own in there. I wanted to sort of pay homage to Randy Rhodes, because he was a big influence on me. I did like the way that one turned out, though I haven’t heard the rest of the record.
It’s all very faithful to the original performances. Now, here’s a question I just have to ask: Was there a certain age when you realized you have a very unusual name?
I had the fortunate experience of being in a shoe store when I was about four or five, where this bigger kid came up and sort of cornered me — he had just put on some new shoes so he thought he could run faster. He was really impressed with himself. And he said (adopting different voice) “Hey, what’s your name?” And I said “Dweezil.” And he said “That’s a stupid name!” So I said “What’s your name?,” and he said “Buns.” It was at that point that I realized, even though my name was different, it was better than “Buns,” and I didn’t really need to change it. It really never was a problem for me, but Moon, at one point, wanted to change her name to something she thought was a little more normal, and she wanted to change it to “Beauty Heart.” That was when she was maybe seven or eight. And Ahmet was having trouble at school — people were calling him “Ahmet Vomit” and he decided he wanted a normal name. There was a guy working construction on the house that he took a special fascination to because the guy rode a motorcycle and Ahmet thought he was pretty cool. His name was Rick, so Ahmet got one of those denim notebooks that you get when you’re going back to school and he wanted me to write his “new name” — in calligraphy, no less — on this [notebook]. He wanted “Rick Zappa,” and I said “Are you sure about that?” He said “Yeah.” He goes to school and he’s telling everyone that he’s now Rick Zappa. So, Ahmet Vomit, in a heartbeat, became “Rick the Dick.” He thought “Ahmet Vomit” was way better than “Rick the Dick.” That notebook was swiftly destroyed after that.
You’re now working with guys who once played with Frank, like Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio. What is that experience like for you?
It’s a luxury to play with really great musicians. There’s sort of an unspoken word about, you know, what they do, so you know you’re in good hands when you say “Okay, here’s how this song goes,” and they start playing. They do exactly what you hoped they were going to do, based on what you’re familiar with. It takes a lot of the guesswork out and they obviously add a great personality to the project. Terry Bozzio is one of the few drummers that is very recognizable: the moment he starts playing, you know it’s him, the same as you would when John Bonham starts playing. When you think about it, it’s very difficult for a drummer to have his own sound, because you can only hit the drums a certain way, there’s not that many options other than tuning drums a certain way.
Well, I wish you a lot of success with Automatic, because it’s a very unique rock record.
I don’t know of anything else out there that’s doing what I set out to do with this record. I was bored with guitar playing. It used to be that I couldn’t wait for the next Van Halen record, and then there were four or five other guitar players doing great things as well. But now there’s just nobody out there doing anything that I’m excited to hear, because no one is encouraged to be excellent at their instrument. I hope that there are people who want to hear that kind of thing and maybe more of that type of music will come out, but when new generations of kids are not exposed to the cool guitar playing and they think that the coolest guitar player is Billy Corgan, that’s sad.