Sibling battle can’t keep him from playing his father’s music
By Gary Graff
July 1, 2016
The 50th anniversary of Frank Zappa’s first Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out!, this year should be a cause for celebration. Sadly, it’s just the opposite.
One of the oddest and most heartbreaking stories so far this year has been the very public schism between Dweezil Zappa and his younger siblings who control the Zappa Family Trust. Earlier in the spring Dweezil came clean for the first time about his battles with his mother, the late Gail Zappa, over use of his father’s name and music for his Zappa Plays Zappa tour, including having to pay her a fee and turn over all of the merchandise sales.
With his brother Ahmet and sister Diva left in charge after their mother’s death last October, things have only gotten worse, and while Dweezil seems to be doing his best to avoid an actual lawsuit, he’s still in a pitched battle with the trust and has even been forced to change the name of the tour — first to Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa, then to Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants: The Cease and Desist Tour, alluding to his legal machinations with the trust.
The good news is that the music goes on and Zappa — who released his seventh solo album, Via Zammata’, last year — will play 14 dates in July in both the U.S. and Europe and plans to play whatever the f@%k he wants for the foreseeable future.
FGPO: Your revelations have really caught fans off guard. It’s just … crazy, right?
Zappa: That’s one way to look at it, sure. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that has been going on for a long time that people just don’t know about, so the information is just getting out there now, and it’s a lot for people to process. What really appears at first to be a squabble over a name is not all of it. There’s more things going on in terms of how the Zappa Family Trust is handling the estate, an upcoming auction. My sister Moon and I are being kept in the dark about how anything with the trust is being run because Ahmet and Diva are in power, and they don’t give us any information. So they’re doing things that are suspect, to say the least.
FGPO: How is it that the trust wound up in the hands of the youngest children, anyway?
Zappa: You’d have to ask Gail about that. That was her big, master plan. In terms of [Zappa Plays Zappa], it started off with Gail, my mother, taking 100 percent of the tour merchandise since the beginning of the tour and reneging on a contract to rebate me some of the money that I paid to play the music. I argued with her every year for a decade, but I never took her to court. I figured we would be able to resolve this at some point, but she never did resolve it, and then Ahmet and Diva took the position they were entitled to take 100 percent of the merchandise as Gail did. The fact that the contract exists and that they pretend: “Oh no, no, we really don’t care about that. We’re gonna keep going on this way. Gail wanted it like this” when they should be honoring a contract that exists. … So there’s all kinds of special lawyering going on and all kinds of stuff happening. Ahmet and Diva have a lot of latitude to be able to make any kind of changes and decisions about how the trust operates, but they like to pretend otherwise. Gail set the stage for this, and there was never a point where she tried to really correct the injustices. So what she set up looks like a road map for Ahmet and Diva, and they are hiding behind the fact that it’s set up on paper to look a certain way and they get to behave in a way they probably feel is justified when in reality there is a way to correct it.
FGPO: I think people were particularly shocked to find out you had to pay to use the Zappa Plays Zappa name, too.
Zappa: I was being charged $1,000 a show to play the music, but the way the contract was written was that money was to be rebated to me at some point. So the money was being paid but wasn’t being rebated to me. That’s when everything started to be: “What the hell’s the problem here?” The fact that the contract is written in a way that’s very convoluted, I can only assume that Gail wanted it that way so that it would appear that she could say that anybody who plays Frank’s music has to be charged to play the music, even his own son, and at the end of the day that’s what happened. But, y’know, even right now you can go online and see there’s several Zappa tribute things going on, even high profile, saying they’re playing the music of Frank Zappa. Have they received a cease and desist? No. But if I try to say I’m playing the music of Frank Zappa, I get all kinds of letters from lawyers. None of that makes sense to the average person.
FGPO: There’s also an issue with some of your father’s guitars that are going up for auction, right?
Zappa: I was given Frank’s guitars when Frank passed away, and they were later repossessed by Gail. At the end of her life she decided to choose three of them herself to give back to me, but without their cases, which is just so stupid. I had argued with her for years about this; I even said to her months before she passed, I said that if she’s planning to give me some of them back I’d like to make the choice of which ones myself, ’cause I can actually play these things and make them do what they’re supposed to do as opposed to her saying “I’ll just give him these and these other ones will be auctioned” or whatever. The ones that were given me are not the ones I would have chosen. I got the Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Les Paul, the Roxy (Gibson) SG and an acoustic guitar. And instead of trying to make that right and say: “Yeah, we realize that was not something that should’ve happened,” (the Trust) is like, ‘Well, you can buy ’em back when they go on auction.
FGPO: That’s pretty heartbreaking.
Zappa: Well, the point is they should never be auctioned. There’s a whole argument and possibly a legal entanglement before that even happens. The trust contends that: “Oh, they weren’t actually repossessed by Gail. She took them back, but they’re actually Frank’s business assets.” No one’s able to explain how Frank can still have business assets and run a business while he’s deceased. If you look at all the speciality legalise that’s being created for these things, it’s really pretty pathetic.
FGPO: What’s particularly sad about this is it’s family doing this to family.
Zappa: Well, there’s no accounting for family when it comes to bad behavior. Bad behavior is bad behavior, and I’m not mourning the loss or grieving over not having this connection to family, because I don’t want to be connected to people who are going to do things that are disrespectful and not recognize an injustice. I live my life in an in-the-moment kind of way. If something is going on I will address what’s happening, and if I have to move sideways to adapt, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the idea that: “Oh, this is family. I’ve really got to fix this.” If someone is going to treat you in a way that’s not respectful, if the people who are supposed to be aligned with you just by nature of being relatives are not acting within the best interest for the family, you just have to move on, y’know?
FGPO: Your father, of course, had a taste for the absurd. Is he rolling in his grave about all this or laughing from the great beyond?
Zappa: Oh, I don’t think he would like this at all. Of course, if he were around, nothing like this would happen.
FGPO: How has this affected your relationship to his music?
Zappa: It strengthens my resolve to play the music. I’ve been doing this already for 10 years. When you really look at it and the way Gail treated it and the way Ahmet and Diva are treating it, it’s like no good deed goes unpunished. How about, “Hey, thanks for keeping the name out there.” For me it’s always been important to play the music, and with all of this stuff happening I did sort of take the absurdity of it all and incorporate it into this tour.
FGPO: And certainly with the new tour name. How did you settle on that?
Zappa: First I was told I couldn’t use the name Zappa Plays Zappa; I had to publicly change the name to Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa, which they claimed was another infringement on a trademark they owned. There’s really not any merit to that; I mean, a mechanic who has the ability to fix a Volkswagen can put a Volkswagen logo on his garage and nobody thinks he’s making Volkswagen. So [Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa] really is fair use, and you see that all over the Internet, whenever anybody’s playing Frank’s music. But the trust has only decided to go after me over this. But rather than waste time on fighting to keep that use of the name, I’ll just use the name my father gave me. I’m Dweezil Zappa. I’m playing whatever the fuck I want. I have a Cease & Desist T-shirt and other stuff. I’m able to make merch for the first time ever and have it be 100 percent controlled by me. And the funny thing is I offered the Zappa Family Trust the opportunity to sell Frank Zappa shirts with his picture and stuff like that on them at my shows. I offered them a very generous 50-50 split, and they turned it down. The would rather have 100 percent of nothing than 50 percent of something.
FGPO: Musically, the new tour coincides with the 50th anniversary of the first Mothers album, Freak Out! What do you think that album means a half century later?
Zappa: Well, imagine an 11-year-old kid going into a record store, and he picks up this record and takes it home, he or she, and then puts it on and their parents are horrified at what’s coming out of the speakers. Even now it stands in stark contrast to what would ever be considered normal popular music, with all kinds of things that were unusual at the time. Even distortion was pretty unusual at the time, and there’s feedback and just massive noise, and then there’s all kinds of other Dadaist things like “It Can’t Happen Here.” And then you’ve got some Rhythm & Blues kind of doo-wop things. It’s a very strange combination of stuff that makes it seem a bit psychedelic, but not in a drug way. The fact that it happened 50 years ago and you play it now and it still sounds like it’s ahead of its time, that is what a lot of Frank’s music is about with all of his records.
FGPO: How are you commemorating the anniversary on the tour?
Zappa: We’re playing some stuff from Freak Out! that Frank never actually played live like it is on the record. We’re doing “It Can’t Happen here” and we’re doing some other things, but we’re definitely not playing the whole Freak Out!album. We’re playing some early Mothers stuff; I’ve sort of created a medley of things to make it like a tornado of psychedelic ‘60s music. So there’s a bit of a theme running, but I also want the broad variety of Frank’s music in the show.
FGPO: There’s so much guitar and different guitar music in these songs. How do you go about recreating them?
Zappa: I have a system that allows me to recreate the sounds of virtually any kind of piece of equipment. It’s a digital system called Fractal Axe Effects, and I can recreate really anything Frank did in the studio at any time, guitar-wise. And I can do it using a few different guitars. I can do certain song lifts for set lists for a show on one guitar and have wildly different sound coming out of that one guitar. But it’s kind of reverse engineering, and doing the sounds is always a time-consuming part of the process. I talked to Frank quite a bit over the years about the gear he used, why he used it, all those things. I have a good knowledge of what he was doing at different periods, and why he was using it. That helps me when I try to recreate these sounds. Part of what we do is we really set out to get the right timbre of the instrumentation, ’cause when he arranged stuff it’s arranged specifically so you can hear it a certain way, with a balanced set of frequencies. To do that live we do take a strong cue from the record and recreate the sounds so it’s able to be mixed together properly for the audience and has the same conic character. If we’re playing something from the ‘60s we’re going to play it like that, not go, “Oh, here’s the new, modern way of doing it.” That wouldn’t be right.