But, Dweez, What Do You <i> Really </i> Think? : Frank Zappa’s Son, Who Plays the Coach House Saturday, Inherited Dad’s Outspokenness
Remember the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue,” in which a fellow saddles his son with an unusual name in the hope that it will make him to grow up to be his own man?
Well, it works.
Dweezil Zappa, explaining how his parents prepared him to avoid school-age pressures to conform, says, “Just having a name like Dweezil was a good start. Many people hear the name and think, ‘Man it must suck to grow up with that.’ But you definitely end up having your own identity because you’re already set apart from everybody else. People go, ‘I can’t believe that’s your name,’ or think, ‘What an idiot.’ So there’s 10 guys named Mike and 50 guys named David and a million Joes in your class, and they all follow the same thing, where everybody likes the same music, buys the same clothes, the same notebooks and pencils. And you go your own way.”
For Zappa that entailed leaving high school at 15 (with his parents’ blessing) to pursue a life in music. Since embarking on that musical career in the mid-1980s, he also has taken pains to prove that he’s his own man (or teen, as the case was then), not just someone cashing in on the name of his famous dad, Frank Zappa.
His metal-based music reveals far more influence from Edward Van Halen than anything in the elder Zappa’s catalogue. He got signed to a major label without his pop pulling any strings in the industry. A handy thing, too, considering his dad spent much of his career sawing on those strings, savaging and lampooning the inanities and vacuity of the entertainment business. For several years, Frank Zappa has elected to release his albums on his own independent label, Barking Pumpkin.
Like father, like son, the saying goes, and Dweezil is turning out at least to have inherited a fearless mouth from his dad. His new album, “Confessions,” will be coming out April 9 on Barking Pumpkin as well, as the 21-year-old Zappa is unreservedly fed up with the major labels.
Speaking by phone from a Hollywood studio during a break in rehearsals Monday, Zappa said it wasn’t originally his idea to release “Confessions” as an independent.
“I was kind of forced into it,” he said, “I financed the record myself and produced it myself along with (young guitar whiz) Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme. I wrote all the songs, except for the cover tunes, and every major label turned it down. I just said, ‘Well (forget) these guys, I’ll do it myself.’
“I think that generally the people who are responsible for bringing new acts into record companies are so afraid of losing their jobs that they only want to bring in acts that resemble others that already bring in money. It’s a money-making proposition only. On very few occasions do bands get signed on musical merit or talent, where someone says, ‘I just like this--let’s put it out.’ It’s a sad day when Vanilla Ice gets more attention than good musicians who actually play instruments and music, doing things that are much more creative.”
He has a good chunk of his own money riding on the new album--money earned from starring in a TV series he detested (more on that shortly)--and he expects to have a much harder time getting it heard without a label’s promotional backing and tour support. He plans to offset that by hard touring--including a stop Saturday at the Coach House--which can be quite a financial risk without that tour support.
Also, unlike the shared partnership most young groups are founded on, Zappa is a bandleader.
“In this case, I’m the boss who hires everybody,” he said. “At 21, I’ve got myself into such a high-stress environment, I’m worried about my hair falling out and my gums receding.”
While being in charge of his career is a daunting prospect, he does see some advantages.
“Going out in this total maverick fashion, if I do succeed, there will be much more satisfaction to it,” he said. “It’s a neat challenge. And I’m much better off doing this now than later, because if we do succeed, then I can continue to do whatever the hell I want to do instead of having a bunch of idiot losers guide my career without them having the faintest notion of anything.”
“Confessions” is a set of primarily melodic metal, fleshed out with rich arrangements and vocal harmonies. Those, Zappa said, were largely the responsibility of co-producer Bettencourt, whose band Extreme is strong on the same qualities. Bettencourt also spells Zappa on some of the album’s guitar solos.
Despite the early boost he got in the form of a unique name, Zappa has had his own image problems, fueled by his exposure on MTV and in the CBS series “Normal Life” and by gossipy reports romantically linking him with various celebrities.
“I think people generally know my name, but they don’t know what I do,” he said. “They know me more as a stupid kind of personality they saw on MTV or from some lame untrue article in People magazine or something. . . .
“They like to do the teen-age Warren Beatty thing with me. I don’t know why, probably just because I’ve been seen with some people that people recognize.
“They go, ‘Oh, let’s do a story on that, because that’s far more interesting than what he does .’ ”
One thing Zappa rather wishes he hadn’t done was “Normal Life.” Though he said he and his sister, Moon Unit, originated the domestic comedy, it didn’t turn out the way they’d planned.
“We created that show, but ultimately the network and executive producers flipped the concept on us, and we were bound by contract, and it became just the most standard mediocre show. We were so happy to see it go away. . . .
“That was such a miserable experience for my sister and myself,” he said. “The only good thing that came out of it was it enabled me to finance the record.”
Leaving school, he said, was “the best thing I ever could have done. I don’t think I deprived myself. I merely gave myself a head start, getting more practice in on the thing I really wanted to do: play guitar. I had no interest in what was going on at the school I went to. There were too many kids taking drugs and just going down the wrong road. They weren’t inspired to do anything with their lives. I’ve never taken a drug in my life and don’t drink alcohol, so I had no interest in any of the social activities that occurred.”
Zappa still lives at home and, unlike many young people his age, has no urge to escape.
“Everybody in the family is so close,” he said. “We really like to spend time within the family, which is pretty bizarre, unusual for the California family in the entertainment industry. Our house is like the Kennedy compound. I have no reason to move out. I couldn’t afford rent anywhere anyway.”
His brother, Ahmet, sings with his band, which is rounded out by bassist Scott Thunes, guitarist Mike Keneally (both recruited from the elder Zappa’s touring band) and 18-year-old drummer Josh Freese. Moon, who had a hit with “Valley Girl” in 1982, contributes a “lime white girl” rap to the album.
Zappa has mixed feelings about the metal medium. On one hand, he asserts, “These days it’s where the talented rock musicians are, who are really going out and sweating every night, playing real instruments as opposed to faking it and dancing to tapes.”
On the other hand, there’s the music’s costumes, posturing and the “kegger!” mentality.
“I poke fun at it all the time,” he said. “I’m so far removed from the actual image of heavy metal. My music sounds like it should be performed with the same bravado and scary kind of super-macho thing going on. But that doesn’t happen with us. We’re like just a bunch of clowns on stage. We like to be total buffoons with what we do.
“If you just listened to the record and had no idea of what we looked like, you would probably think we dressed in leather. Then you see us and we’re basically dressed in M.C. Hammer pants and cow outfits, doing the stupidest things you’ve ever seen.”
Dweezil Zappa and Stikkitty play at 9 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $13.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.
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