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 performance.
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?
I wanted to find the best examples of the band executing the music with good energy and a sense of fun, and strong improvisational ideas in the solo sections. Unusual guitar sounds were also part of the equation. They’re always a good bonus.
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 stompboxes. Why?
Here’s an analogy. If you track a record on a Neve console, you might want to mix on an SSL. The crossover points and character of the EQs are different, and you can get some different details and textures as a result. The same is true with the Fractal. Even though it can produce virtually any amp sound or effect, it’s sometimes nice to have slightly different versions of things so you can have the best variety.
How did you get the “Willie the Pimp” sound? It’s so weird and throaty—especially when you get up high on the neck.
There’s a little bit of a fuzz/octave effect in there. I was using a Boss FZ-2 Hyper Fuzz, in conjunction with other stuff. You’re hearing that octave thing on one side, and a different kind of fuzz—from the Fractal— on the other side, and they’re blending together.
What about more conventional blues-rock tones—like on “Son of Mr. Green Genes”?
That’s just the straight-up Fractal. It’s a patch that we made, which is a Marshall sound on one side and a Fender on the other. We slapped it together to have a certain kind of retro sound—like a cranked-up amp, but with not too much gain.
Is your walnut SG the main guitar you played on the F.O.H. recordings?
The majority of the songs feature that guitar. I also used my ’58 reissue Les Paul that has pickups and wiring similar to the Jimmy Page model, and my custom Stratocaster with the FZ image on the body.
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 imprecision?
It really comes down to an imprint of the phrasing, and Frank’s phrasing is really hard to capture. What ultimately gets you in the ballpark is trying to capture the sound that allows you to play that way. One of the sounds that helped with that was one I got while we were working on the Freak Out version of “Trouble Every Day.” That record is from 1966, before amplifiers were designed to heavily distort. The way that you would get distortion back then was to overload the input to the mixing console or tape machine itself, which gives you this sort of square-wave distortion that’s not very comfortable to play on. Yes, it’s distorted, but it doesn’t have the reactive kind of sound that would give you feedback. It’s like playing on a very crisp, clean sound that has this ratty distortion on it. That makes things imprecise, because it’s the nature of the sound. To recreate that overloaded sound in the Fractal, I took a direct sound—like a direct-box sound— then added too much gain to the channel. I added a little reverb to it, and it ended up really sounding like the record.
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?
Because those were the years when I began to notice what my dad was doing. I was born in 1969, so the music that he was making between ’74 and ’79 was really the fabric of my life. It remains the period that I relate to the most—especially regarding the guitar playing and in the sounds that he had from that period.
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?
Yes, and I was always trying to learn from what was going on.
Do you run your rehearsals similarly with your ZPZ ensemble?
I do, as best as I can, though I have to be a little more lenient because we don’t have as many hours to rehearse. He’d rehearse a band for three months, even for a threeweek tour. We typically have five to ten days of rehearsal before a tour, and we’ll learn 14 or 15 songs. Prior to getting into rehearsal, everybody’s doing their homework.
Did charts already exist, or did you have to make your own?
We had to create charts for virtually everything— by listening to the records and mapping things out for the instrumentation in our band. If we couldn’t get certain things that way, we’d pull out the master tapes, listen to individual tracks, and transcribe exactly what’s on there. We did that for “Big Swifty,” which has these thick, dense harmonies. It was really interesting to find out what was on the individual tracks, because sometimes you’re hearing these crunchy textures—multiple notes that are a half-step apart, in different ranges. Every note is not necessarily mixed super loud. We’d pull stuff apart and find a chord that literally had every note in it.
And then you have to find a way to orchestrate that for ZPZ.
The ultimate work that goes in is to recreate the era. We try to use the same timbre of instrumentation—not only to give it the flavor and aroma of the era, but also to make sure the overall mix of the thing can come together. Stuff sounds the way it does because it’s taking up a certain frequency range. If you were to mess with that and change the timbre of instrumentation, it’s not going to sound the way it’s supposed to.
So you’re not looking to reinvent the wheel.
I’m trying to give people a sense of what this music is to begin with. If I’m going to use this opportunity to expose people to Frank’s music, I don’t want them to hear something that sounds so different from what they would hear if they were inspired to pick up the original recordings. People always tell me, “You should do your own thing with it.” I disagree. I’m not trying to improve the music. I don’t feel that anybody can improve on the music.