Despite Family Legal Battles, Dweezil Zappa Keeps Playing His Father's Music
There’s no way Frank Zappa would have wanted it like this. The enigmatic, brilliant, avant-garde rock composer departed this world in 1993, leaving behind a complicated yet revered body of musical work, wife Gail and four children — Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva. Gail set up the Zappa Family Trust shortly after Frank’s death to ensure that her husband’s legacy was properly taken care of by those who care about him the most — his widow and his children. What could possibly go wrong?
In the 1990s, Ahmet and Dweezil played together under the band name Z. The new millennium brought about a new project, a family tribute of sorts called Zappa Plays Zappa, led by Dweezil and occasionally featuring former Frank Zappa side players. After Gail's death in October 2015, for reasons that remain unclear, Ahmet and Diva were each given 30 percent shares in the Zappa Family Trust, with Ahmet acting as trustee. Dweezil and Moon were beneficiaries only, with 20 percent each.
That's when things got nasty. Dweezil's siblings, acting through the trust, suddenly got very particular about the name that Dweezil is allowed to perform under, forcing him to change his show's name from Zappa Plays Zappa to Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa and then, when that name still brought a cease-and-desist letter from the estate, to the more pointed “50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the Fuck He Wants — the Cease & Desist tour.”
“I think most people, when they hear about what’s going on, they just wonder why we all can’t work it out to make this easier, work together to make the Zappa family legacy as great as it can be and have everybody involved,” Dweezil says. “It’s because the people that are involved want to do things a particular way that doesn’t have the best interests of all four of the beneficiaries of the trust. They’re doing things that are purposeful to create problems — problems I didn’t have when my mother was in charge. I had some problems with her, but they’re way worse now with Ahmet and Diva.”
Put simply, Dweezil and Moon must ask Ahmet’s permission before using the family’s name in any musical venture. Which makes things a little complicated for Dweezil, since he is both a musician and a Zappa. Can the terms of the family trust prevent Dweezil from going out and using his own surname? Dweezil doesn’t think so.
“There’s a trademark issue that’s happening where [Ahmet and Diva] have filed to establish themselves as exclusive rights holders of the surname Zappa,” Dweezil says. “Anything that is ticketed entertainment — live music, personal appearance, music production, music festivals — all these things, they want to have the exclusive rights to the name Zappa. If they were to be granted the exclusive rights to the name Zappa, they could have the ability to block me from being able to use the name my father gave me to identify myself. So much of this is completely unnecessary and a huge waste of money. But they’re spending the money of the trust to do it.”
So for now, Frank’s kids split into two even camps, with no sign of a resolution. It is, says Dweezil, ridiculous. “Nobody can understand it, least of all me,” Dweezil says. “I have the ability to play my dad’s music, and I have no intention of stopping either the touring or playing the music. But all of the things that they’ve done only hurt them in the long run. They’ve taken themselves out of the ability to even sell any official Zappa merchandise at my shows.”
For fans, the family standoff is particularly frustrating, because Dweezil does a wonderful job of interpreting his dad’s music in a live environment — no easy task for even the most accomplished musicians. Yet deconstructing and reconstructing the songs offers Dweezil a continuation of a loving father/son relationship as he unravels the DNA of the music and finds little, previously unheard intricacies.
“Every time I have that experience, I always wish that I could ask him, ‘Oh my God, how’d you come up with that? This part is genius,’” Dweezil says. “My dad’s music is the kind of thing where, even if you thought you recognized the pattern, when you really do the due diligence to learn the stuff, you see that everything is its own thing. At first listen you might think it’ll be a certain kind of chord progression, or you think you’ve got an idea of what the rhythm is, but then you find out that it’s different than what you thought.”
A respected guitarist and songwriter in his own right, Dweezil’s last solo album of original material, Via Zammata, surfaced in 2015. But while he considers it important as an artist to write and release new music, his recent focus has been on Frank’s legacy and all of the hard work that comes with preparing for that.
“It takes a lot of effort to keep the band together and keep the music rehearsed,” he says. “So if we play 80 to 100 shows a year and then the traveling and rehearsal that goes with that, that takes up at least six or seven months out of the year. ... My other main priority would be spending time with my wife and kids.”
Interpreting the music of Frank Zappa in the modern world is an interesting endeavor, even for members of his own family. The technology is so advanced now, the tools to make weird and wonderful noises so readily available, that new fans struggle to comprehend how far ahead of his time Frank was. Like, say, innovative French composer Jean-Michel Jarre, Zappa was an inventor almost as much as he was an artist.
“If he wanted to extend the range of a woodwind, a horn or something else to make it play notes that it couldn’t otherwise play, he would vary-speed the tape, and he would be able to record the instrument at a different speed so that it would play back at the proper pitch,” Dweezil says. “So songs like ‘Peaches en Regalia,’ for example, have elements like that where you’re essentially inventing a new instrument.”
That’s the joy for Dweezil; he’s forced to examine the songs in order to play them — delve into every little element and question how certain sounds were made. In doing so, he gets to know his father even better, and we as an audience get to experience the music, so much of it born right here in Los Angeles, all over again.
Dweezil Zappa: 50 Years of Frank comes to the Fonda Theatre on Saturday, May 6. Tickets and more info.
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