It’s no secret that many releases with
“live” or “alive” in their title are nipped and tucked
in postproduction. Vocals get tuned, solos are fixed
or replaced, extra instruments are layered on top
of the original performances, and so on. F.O.H.
[Fantom], the new 2-CD release from guitarist
Dweezil Zappa and his 8-piece Zappa Plays Zappa
ensemble, is not that kind of record. Even if Zappa
had wanted to tidy things up, it would have been nearly impossible given the source material
he chose—2-channel digital recordings
captured over several tours, taken directly
from the F.O.H. (“front of house”) reference
mixes. What you hear is a snapshot
of what happened on stage and what it
sounded like in the house for any given
Zappa Plays Zappa has been touring
since 2006, playing the music of the late
Frank Zappa. To call Frank’s often dense
and polyrhythmic music “challenging”
would be a gross understatement, but
Dweezil—Frank’s son—is dedicated to presenting
the material at the highest standard
possible. He and the ZPZ band excel
not only at nailing the notes but maintaining
the character and feel of Frank’s
original recordings from the mid 1960s
through the late ’70s.
“We’ve done extensive touring, recording
lots of it, and good performances have
been captured,” says Zappa. “I don’t have
time to go to the multi-tracks and mix this
amount of material, so I started investigating
whether any of our front-of-house references
sounded good and balanced enough to
be released. I listened to hundreds of them,
and found the ones that had the most consistency—
the right combination of overall
mix balance, as well as depth and detail in
the performance itself.”
Once Zappa had cherry-picked the performances,
the only sonic changes that
could be made were the more broad strokes
done in the mastering process. But he went
beyond simply balancing frequencies and
correcting quirks. “I wanted to emphasize
the character of the era of each song,” he
says. “The way I did it in mastering was to
use Universal Audio plug-ins to ‘print’ the
mix as if it were going to a certain kind of
tape formulation on a certain tape machine.
I did some research to see what kind of tape Frank actually used during those periods.
If we were doing something from, say,
Fillmore East, I could look into the vaults
and see what kind of tape was used and
on what kind of machine. I tried to match
those kinds of things to give it that extra
little sonic layer of detail. I think it makes
a difference in how it hits you when you
listen to it.”
With all the live ZPZ recordings you had cataloged,
how did you choose the recordings that
ultimately became the F.O.H. record?
The Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II system is the
centerpiece of your touring rig. It can create
such a wide array of tones, yet you still use some
How did you get the “Willie the Pimp” sound?
It’s so weird and throaty—especially when you
get up high on the neck.
What about more conventional blues-rock tones—like on “Son of Mr. Green Genes”?
Is your walnut SG the main guitar you played
on the F.O.H. recordings?
In the Tour Blog section of your web site, you
talk about having to change your technique for
songs from the Freak Out and We’re Only in It for
the Money era—the late ’60s. How do you practice
While ZPZ plays music from different periods
of Frank’s career, there seems to be a slight
emphasis on the music he wrote and recorded
between 1974 and ’79. Why is that?
When people who are new to Frank’s
music ask me where they should start in listening
to it, I usually tell them to start in that
area, with stuff like Apostrophe (’) and Overnight
Sensation, then go back to the beginning, with Freak Out and Absolutely Free. In that tenyear
period from ’66 to ’76, so many things
changed within Frank’s music. Yet, you can
tell that all of the elements were there from
the beginning. As he got players who were
more capable of playing some of his more
intricate music, you started to hear more and
more of that, but he had been writing that stuff since his early teens.
Did you get to see your father rehearse with
his bands much?
Do you run your rehearsals similarly with your
Did charts already exist, or did you have to
make your own?
And then you have to find a way to orchestrate
that for ZPZ.
So you’re not looking to reinvent the wheel.
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