Stars from A to Zappa
Musicians of GearFest
June 15, 2017
It is not uncommon for famous musicians to try to dissuade their kids from getting into the family business.
Frank Zappa went in the other direction, according to his son, Dweezil.
"He put 'musician' on my birth certificate where it said 'religion,'" Dweezil Zappa recalled in a phone interview. "He already had some indication that I was going to take that path."
On June 23 and 24, Dweezil will have taken a path to GearFest.
Even if you hadn't seen the term GearFest before encountering it here, you were probably able to discern that it refers to a celebration of gear.
"But what kind of gear?" you may be thinking. If your guess is "fishing equipment" and your nickname isn't "the fishin' musician," Sweetwater Sound's GearFest may not be for you.
Gear in this instance means the tools for crafting and polishing music - the very tools that Sweetwater Sound sells around the world.
GearFest attracts between 10,000 and 15,000 attendees to Sweetwater Sound's sprawling complex on U.S. 30 every year. They come to take in and partake of gear-centric exhibits, seminars, clinics, workshops, panels and performances.
It is free and open to the public.
Zappa will be conducting a workshop sponsored by D'Addario guitar strings. Other celebs on site will include guitarists Eric Johnson and Robben Ford, drummer Terry Bozzio, guitarist Andy Timmons, record producer Fab Dupont, drummer Omar Hakim, keyboardist Larry Dunn and drummer Mike Mangini.
For more than a decade now, Dweezil Zappa has been touring with a show called (for most of that span) Zappa Plays Zappa.
It is a showcase of Frank Zappa's music, commandeered and performed by someone who knows as much about it as anybody and likely cares more.
Zappa said in a phone interview that he launched Zappa Plays Zappa partly because the people who were playing his dad's music at the time were playing it wrong.
Frank Zappa was notoriously persnickety and imperious about his compositions, and he had a spiel for members of his band who had started to showboat.
"At a certain point, somebody would think they needed some star time," Dweezil said. "They would try to start changing parts to draw attention to themselves. And that would be the point at which my father would say to them, 'Window or aisle? How would you like to return home?'"
Dweezil said he needed two years of guitar retraining before he felt he could do justice in concert to his dad's excellence on that instrument.
Another motivation for the creation of Zappa Plays Zappa was concern about his father's legacy. Dweezil felt that young people really didn't know much about his father beyond a couple of novelty tunes and his distinctive face.
These days, Frank Zappa's legacy is under attack from an unexpected quarter: sibling rivalry.
After Dweezil's mother died in 2015, his brother and sister, Ahmet and Diva, began to take legal steps to limit what Dweezil could do with Frank's music.
Dweezil said he was told that he couldn't use the title "Zappa Plays Zappa" anymore and his suggested substitute, "Dweezil Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa," was rejected.
So he changed the name of the show to "Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the (Expletive) He Wants - the Cease-and-Desist Tour."
Dweezil said Ahmet and Diva have filed for a federal trademark to gain exclusive use of "Zappa." If approved, it could block Dweezil from using his own last name professionally.
"We are still in the discovery phase of all that," Dweezil said. "Lawyers back and forth. Meanwhile, they could easily stop any of that by saying, 'If we get this trademark, we will not block you.' They refuse to sign any document saying that."
"At the same time," he said, "they are telling the public, 'We would never block him!"
Ahmet has told the press that he is willing to let Dweezil use "Zappa Plays Zappa" for a nominal fee of $1 a year, but what he doesn't say (according to Dweezil) is that he wants 100 percent of profits from the sale of merchandise.
"Nobody would ever take that deal," Dweezil said. "They don't pay any of the costs related to the tour: the salaries, the travel."
Dweezil claims Ahmet and Diva, who share a controlling interest in the Zappa Family Trust, plan to use Frank's name and image to sell products he never would have endorsed when alive: yoga pants, for example.
"They have already put out the yoga pants with Frank's name on them," he said. "Why is it that Diva Zappa can make yoga pants with Frank's name and image on them and I can't say that I am playing Frank's music?"
The irony here, in Dweezil's estimation, is that he is the only one involved in this imbroglio who actually has a proven record of trying to preserve and extend his dad's creative legacy.
Dweezil believes the law is on his side in a number of respects.
Some of the fallout from all of this is fan confusion, Dweezil said.
"It rubs [fans] the wrong way," he said. "And then it also creates a certain element of people deciding to choose sides. Rather than unifying the family and saying, 'Let's make this the best possible version of the family legacy,' they are creating this divide for no reason."
Whatever that outcome of this, it seems apparent that Dweezil becomes more like his father with each passing year: more ambitious, more experimental, more multidimensional.
In March, Dweezil released a track to help raise funds for legal fees called "Dinosaur."
It was assembled using a method his father dubbed "xenochrony." Xenochrony creates a coherent pastiche out of related and unrelated snippets.
"Dinosaur" combines solos from nine guitarists including Frank Zappa.
Zappa has a larger xenochrony-related project that he has been working on for more than two decades called "The Hell Was I Thinking."
It is a massive guitar instrumental that currently features the work of roughly 40 guitarists.
"One of the big goals with that one is to mix it in surround sound because I see it as an audio movie," Zappa said, "and I'd like to make it a completely three-dimensional experience."
Zappa said he is also taking his first stab at composing classical music. The finished result is scheduled to be performed by a 100-piece Dutch orchestra at the end of the year.
"If you had told me 12 years ago that one day I'd be writing orchestral music to be performed, I would have said, 'What are you talking about?'"
Even as he expands his creative horizons, Dweezil said he knows that there will never be another self-taught polymath like Frank Zappa.
"He had the idea that you could put anything with anything for any reason at all," Zappa said. "There weren't any boundaries. He was fearless in that way. The key to it was that he was an auteur who could do everything required to bring an idea to fruition. He didn't have to rely on other people to bring an idea to fruition. He just needed to hire people to play a role and execute the part."
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