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To capture his father’s legacy, Dweezil Zappa turns to surround sound

“In a very idealistic way, music is the most intriguing art form.”

The mantle of carrying on a great artist’s legacy is no easy feat. Such has been one of Dweezil Zappa’s primary charges for the past decade — to celebrate the ingenuity and inventiveness inherent in his late father Frank Zappa’s deeply rich music catalog. Onstage, he must not only meet exacting expectations of longtime fans, but open the ears of younger generations to a musician and composer many musicologists feel was a man truly ahead of his time.

“That’s the thing that’s so amazing about Frank’s music — that it was so advanced, and the fact that he was so prolific,” Dweezil marveled to Digital Trends. “Sometimes, he made five albums a year. Some bands never even make five albums in their whole career.”

Dweezil’s righteous path to spread the sacred and profane gospel of his father’s music has not been without some controversy. Of late, he’s been at odds with the Zappa Family Trust that’s been overseen by his brother Ahmet, his younger sister Diva, and his mother Gail (up until her death in 2015). Among other things, the ZFT have questioned his usage of Frank’s name and likeness during prior Zappa Plays Zappa tours and for related merchandise.

Undeterred by all the ongoing legal back and forth, Dweezil redubbed his current live run as Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%K He Wants: The Cease and Desist Tour, which runs through mid-November. Its main focus is a celebration of 50 years of Frank Zappa music, as his seminal psychedelia-meets-doo-wop double-album opus Freak Out! was released in June 1966.

Digital Trends sat down with Dweezil in his dressing room at the Beacon Theatre in New York prior to his recent Halloween show — a mostly annual tradition that dates back to Frank’s ’70s heyday — to discuss surround sound mixing, what the first song he asked Frank to teach him was, and Frank’s indelible value as an artist.

Digital Trends: You were on a panel I hosted about the merits of surround sound at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas back in 2005. Is surround sound something you’re still passionate about and would like to do more with?

Dweezil Zappa: I have a project that I’m really excited about in terms of how it’s sounding, but the challenge is whether I’ll get to release it because of what the ZFT is doing. It’s for the tour where we did the entire [1974] Apostrophe (’) album. [Keyboard legend] George Duke performed at that concert, so we have him playing with us on songs that he played on the record, and on some other stuff from that night too.

We did the entire thing in surround sound, but it’s featuring a lot of things that are definitely not the normal mode of operation for surround sound.

Give me an example of what you mean by it being “not the normal mode” for surround.

My goal was that I edited the concert visually. I want people to really understand what it’s like to play this music and to live in this music, so you see what you’re hearing at all times onscreen.

As far as how you hear it in surround sound, it changes from song to song. It doesn’t have a “set” format where maybe it’s stereo, and then there’s only a little something in the center and a little in the surrounds in the back.

So as a listener, am I onstage with you and the band, or am I in the audience? Or both?

You have these really cool surround things that make you feel like you could reach out and grab the instrument.

There are a few different things. What happens is, you’ll have stereo that goes sideways, from the right front speaker to the back left, or you’ll have something that just goes down the sides.

One of the cool things we did was if there’s a soloist, the soloist will be in the front, and the band will get pulled into the back when the solo starts, and it will adjust back after the solo. So you have this feeling of being enveloped like you’re on the stage and stuff moves around you. You can actually feel the music go past you.

We also did a lot with surround sound delays and reverbs, so there’s some really cool panning. Everything is different. It’s a very individual approach for every song.

Is it like the live version of “Zeets” that you produced in 5.1 for the [2003] Frank Zappa Halloween release on DVD-Audio, where drummer Vinnie Colaiuta moves around from channel to channel, sometimes in a clockwise fashion and sometimes diagonally?

(nods) It’s like that — but more. And it’s not just for the sake of being silly. You have these really cool things that make you feel like you could reach out and grab the instrument. With 5.1, you have to use less compression, and there’s more space for the speakers to allow separation. You really have tremendous detail.

Is there one song that you feel you reached the pinnacle of what surround can be?

There are a couple that are really cool — and Inca Roads is one, for sure. (The always adventurous and challenging Inca Roads, originally from 1975’s One Size Fits All, has been a welcome staple in Dweezil’s sets in recent years.) George Duke plays the [synthesizer] solo, and Frank actually plays the guitar solo on it, because we had him on the screen. It’s pretty crazy.

Before we ever went on tour, we did a lot of pre-production to try and emulate as many sounds from the records so we could get them as close as we could. In the post-production, we’re referencing the record to get all the vocal effects, delays, and reverbs so that it’s very close to what you’d have on the studio record, but still maintaining that live context.

When you hear certain kinds of delays or filtered EQs for vocals or other different things, it all shows up in the live performance element of it, and it’s just this very expansive sound. It’s really cool.

The two Frank releases you did in 5.1 at 96kHz/24-bit — Halloween and [2004’s]  Quadiophiliac — were both for the DVD-Audio format, but I imagine you’d prefer to put the Apostrophe (’) tour material out on Blu-ray.

Yes. The disc will be Blu-ray, once we get them to the public. The project is essentially finished and there’s just a little left to do with some of the surround sound. It’s pretty much ready to go, but you never know what the Trust will do. We’ll see.

When you did those two releases, it seemed like that was only the beginning of you wanting to do a lot more in surround.

Yeah, for sure. The Quadiophiliac thing was great, and a lot of fun. There is so much within my dad’s music that I think makes it the perfect vehicle for that environment. When people get the chance to experience this particular release, I think they’re going to be excited about it.

One of the things we did with it was test it with this new thing from Waves, the Nx [virtual mix room] where you can make surround sound in a regular pair of headphones. It’s a pretty simple interface where you take something off of the internet and if it’s set up for surround sound, you can hear it that way in the stereo headphones. Everything we had done for a 5.1 speaker setup translated into this pair of headphones.

There is so much within my dad’s music that I think makes it the perfect vehicle for the surround sound environment.

And that was cool, because it gives one the impression that, in the future, there’s even more opportunity for surround to catch on, because now you could wear a pair of headphones and experience it that way. Many people who have a 5.1 system don’t have it set up right or optimized — and with the sub, they always want to have (pauses), more bass! And then they make it all sound terrible.

We decided to go as wild as we could, to see where it would feel like a gimmick and where the out-of-bounds limit was — but we didn’t actually find any place like that. We never found that. I think a lot of that has to with the fact that the music is full-spectrum in terms of the arrangements and the instrumentation. The more separation you have to localize something, the more it feels like it’s right there where you could just possess it and grab it out of thin air.

When it moves a little bit and you have these things that kind of hover, it becomes so three-dimensional that you find yourself smiling. You go, “This is so cool!” You’re just living in this music. It has nothing to do with the realism of, “Oooh, it sounds exactly like it sounded when I stood in the middle of the venue and watched the show!” It’s not about recreating that experience at all.

Do you have other surround projects in mind? What would you do next?

The thing is, I’m building a studio in my home and once that’s done, it’ll be set-up for surround sound, so I could work on more of my own music in that way. I would really like to.

Oh, man — I’d love to hear you yelling those expletives at John Malkovich from the rear channels on the song Malkovich that’s on your [2015] solo record, Via Zammata’.

That would be great to do — or even projects of other people’s at my studio, once it’s done. I’d like to get into doing some of that stuff.

You can challenge Steven Wilson to be our generation’s surround sound guru. (Dweezil laughs) So let’s get to your wish list. If you could mix any album in surround sound, which one or ones would you do?

Ahhh, mmm. I don’t know. If you’re talking about classic records… (pauses) I grew up listening to and learning stuff from Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman (1981) — all the Randy Rhoads parts. So something like that would be great to do.

You asked your dad to show you how to play one of Randy Rhoads’ songs, right?

Yeah, I asked him to show me the chord progression in Revelation (Mother Earth) [from 1980’s Blizzard of Ozz]. It had all these inversions and things that I had no idea what they were.

Just reminiscing through the childhood days of, “This is what got me into guitar” — I love the layering of the guitars on that record. Especially knowing that most of the solos and the rhythm parts are triple-tracked, that gives you a lot to work with in surround.

Ultimately, the goal for doing all this would be to have new generations discover, “Oh wait — you mean I can just sit and only focus on the music, and not have to look at or do ten other things?”

Finally, there’s an often quoted phrase of Frank’s that comes from the song Packard Goose, from 1979’s Joe’s Garage – Act III: “Music is the BEST!” Do you still subscribe to that philosophy?

It depends on what music you’re talking about, you know? In a very idealistic way, music is the most intriguing art form. If you pick it apart and say it starts in one person’s head — if you’re talking about a single artist who’s doing all the writing — and that idea is extracted so that an audience can hear it, you’re hearing this internalized idea.

When you talk about somebody like my dad, who was a complete auteur in the sense that he could do it all — he knew how to write it, capture it, explain it, perform it — you talk about somebody who has such a unique vision, and he’s just taking those details and creating this thing for you to enjoy. It’s got so many levels, and you could spend so many years listening to this stuff, because it has repeat listening value. I think that’s just really amazing.