Dweezil Zappa Opens Up About Family Feud, Father’s Legacy
(Dweezil Zappa and his late father, Frank Zappa. Photos: Getty Images)
The late outsider virtuoso musician Frank Zappa released three instrumental volumes titled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. And for 24 years, that’s just what his oldest son Dweezil Zappa did regarding the family business. When Frank died in 1993 and Dweezil’s mom Gail took over the family estate, Dweezil kept making music and touring. Then in 2008, he took a break from his own songwriting to start playing his dad’s music under the name Zappa Plays Zappa. He released two albums and a DVD and toured extensively, seemingly with no problems.
But when Gail Zappa was terminally ill last year, she made specific instructions in her will about how the Zappa estate would be run after she died, creating the Zappa Family Trust and divvying up the percentage of the family business each of her children would own. She apportioned 30 percent each to her two youngest – son Ahmet, 42, and daughter Diva, 36 – and 20 percent each to her two oldest children, Dweezil, 46, and his sister Moon, 48. In addition, Gail gave Ahmet and Diva control over all decisions made by the Trust. This means Dweezil and Moon currently play no role in the day-to-day decisions regarding their father’s catalogs and vast archives.
To a certain extent, it makes sense that Ahmet is mostly running the business. Before taking over the ZFT, he ran Kingdom Comics, a division of Disney, and he and his wife launched the Disney-owned brand Star Darlings, which makes books, dolls, and other merchandise for tween girls. However, Dweezil says that just six few months after his mother died on Oct. 7, 2014, the ZFT got ugly. In April 2016, Ahmet and Diva hit Dweezil with a cease-and-desist order when he tried to continue touring under the name Zappa Plays Zappa. Allegedly, he was told he could be subject to copyright infringement costs as much as $150,000 for every song of his dad’s that he played.
So, Dweezil went public. In an April 29 article in the New York Times, he explained how he was being pressured not to use “Zappa” in his band name or tour title, and revealed that his mother used to make him pay an “exorbitant fee” just to play his dad’s music.
“I’m telling the public this information because that’s what happens when there’s an injustice,” Dweezil tells Yahoo Music. “If you can’t have any resolution in private conversations, it gets taken to the media. You see that happen in any field or industry. People don’t have all the information, and once they start getting an idea of the totality of what’s going on, it’s disturbing to them.”
Ahmet didn’t respond to Yahoo’s request for an interview, but in an open letter he posted on Facebook following the New York Times piece, he wrote: “Frank Zappa’s legacy isn’t something we built, and Zappa Plays Zappa isn’t a name that any one of us owns or has special claim to. We all got the same name at birth, and as the four beneficiaries of the ZFT, we all have an equal right to benefit from that name. That’s why Gail decided that any Zappa using the name Zappa Plays Zappa would pay a percentage of profits to the ZFT, where it could keep the family business going.”
And in a June 24 article in the Los Angeles Times, Ahmet said: “I want nothing but the best for my brother. The part that hurts my feelings is I have no reason to stand in the way of my brother’s success… as it relates to anything Zappa-related… I’m not doing anything other than having to do what’s in the trust.”
After announcing that he would tour under the name Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa, Dweezil changed his tour name to Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%K He Wants! The guitarist is currently on tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of Frank’s first album, Freak Out!; none of the merchandise he’s selling on the road features his father’s image (which belongs to the trust), and he no longer pays any of his merch profits to the ZFT.
In this comprehensive interview with Yahoo Music, Dweezil now discusses what caused he friction in his family, his father’s musical legacy, his childhood memories, and recent Zappa-related releases, some of which he has never seen or heard.
YAHOO MUSIC: Back in the mid-‘90s, you and your brother recorded two albums together as the band Z. When did the sibling rivalry erupt?
DWEEZIL ZAPPA: We were always a tightknit family up until Frank passed away. Then things got squirrely over time, because my mother was doing things that were completely inappropriate in terms of how she handled the business. She lost a fortune by spending money on lawyers for pointless lawsuits, such as one that went on for a decade or more revolving around the distribution rights to Frank’s catalog.
How much money did she lose?
At one point Rykodisc paid $20 million to distribute Frank’s catalog. In less than 20 years, my mother spent all of that money in lawsuits and multiple other things. When she passed away, she was $6 million in debt, and at one point she completely lost Frank’s catalog. His entire life’s work did not belong to the family anymore because of what she had done.
How did that cause the family friction that now exists? Ultimately it comes down to the fact that when my mother passed, she put Ahmet and Diva in charge of everything and set the stage for all of this to happen. She was living off the merch money [from my tours]. She was taking 100 percent of the tour merchandise money. And that wasn’t right. I don’t know all the specifics of why [Ahmet and Diva] are unwilling to settle that injustice that Gail caused with that particular contract.
Is it true that your brother and sister won’t let you have your dad’s guitars to play on tour?
I was given all of Frank’s guitars when he passed away [in 1993], and a few years later my mother decided that she would repossesses them. She took them all back and I, of course, argued about that, but I couldn’t do anything. When she passed, she gave three of them – of her choice – back to me, but without cases. How weird is that? It’s not like the cases have any real value. The rest of the guitars are being put up for auction by the ZFT. There are a lot of issues that have created this feeling of discontent.
Why do you think your mother divided the ZFT unevenly?
It’s difficult to figure out. She liked for people to think of her as this great protector of artist’s rights, but that was not the case at all. At this point I’m just trying to move forward and play the music, so I can continue having a musical relationship with my father. I enjoy doing it, and it seems pretty preposterous to me that my own family would try to stop me. They’re not even batting an eye at other people that are doing it and not getting cease-and-desist letters.
Why can’t you use the name Zappa Plays Zappa?
My mother trademarked Zappa Plays Zappa, so the Zappa Family Trust owns the name. I’m a member of the trust, but I have no decision-making rights in it and neither does my sister Moon. We’re basically shareholders of this entity that’s worthless at this point. The trust itself doesn’t have any money.
But didn’t they tell you that you could use the name Zappa Plays Zappa for just one dollar per year, which is what it would cost any of them to use the family name to make music?
It came with this requirement that they get 100 percent of the tour merchandise sales. And then they said, “Well, one day when the Trust makes money, then you can get your percentage of that from the Trust.” But that’s never been the agreement I had with my mom to begin with. It’s not a deal anyone would ever make. It’s just not a good deal at all. So they said I couldn’t use the name Zappa Plays Zappa.
Is that when you changed your tour to Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa?
Yes, and then they complained about that. I was advised by lawyers as to the name change. It’s all pointless, stupid stuff that doesn’t need to be happening, yet it is.
You’re calling your current tour Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%K He Wants!, which seems like a jab at the ZFT.
The whole thing is really unfortunate, because I don’t want it to overshadow or cast a shadow on Frank’s music in any way. So I am out playing music now under the name my father gave me and that should suffice for the Zappa Family Trust. I am not an officially endorsed commodity of the trust anymore. I’m basically a lone wolf now. I’m operating a tour of my own that is not endorsed by the Zappa Family Trust in any way, even though I am a member of the Zappa Family Trust.
When did you last speak to Ahmet?
At our mother’s funeral. For that day we were fine.
You and Ahmet played in a band together and were once quite close, and now you’re only talking through lawyers. That must be frustrating.
Obviously, it’s a disappointing way for them to behave, but I have better things to do with my life than mope about it. But I’m not going to let them walk all over me. I’m walking a picket line with a sign that figuratively says, “ZFT don’t tread on me.”
What’s your first memory of your dad’s music?
I used always hear tape machines rewinding because he was trying to make an edit. It would sound like, “Whirp, whirp, whirrrrrp.” As for specific songs, I remember “Peaches En Regalia” and “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast.” Those were songs I loved.
Were you always a music fan?
Yes, but when I was young I didn’t know anything about any other music other than what [my father] was working on or what he was listening to recreationally at the house. It wasn’t until I was 12 that I actually started to hear other music on the radio. And at that point I thought to myself, “Where’s the rest of it? All the other instruments are missing.” I was so accustomed to hearing marimba and all these extended arrangements with a rock band. So everything sounded so empty and uninteresting to me when I started hearing regular pop music.
Did Frank have much time for you when you were a kid?
He was on tour a lot when I was really little, but he worked from home for most of my formative years. So he was far from an absentee parent. When he was working, I went in the studio all the time to see what he was doing and we’d talk about music.
Did you do regular dad/son things like go to ball games or museums?
No, he was not the nuclear father in that way. He came to some of my little league games, but most of our interaction was at the house. We made up a game where we tried to come up with words that should be in the dictionary, but aren’t. One time I suggested a word for the type of person that only ever wears a rock ‘n’ roll T-shirt. And he, within a nanosecond, said “insignoramus,” which was a combination of insignia and ignoramus. That was the kind of stuff we had fun doing. But he was on a different schedule than most people. He worked throughout the night when it was quieter, so at dinnertime, that would be breakfast time for him. I [recall] lot of times we would have breakfast for dinner.
So you’re currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of your father’s first album Freak Out! with a set largely composed of material he released in the late ‘60s.
One of the things I’ve done is put together a medley of things from the early records. So it’s a little tornado thrill ride through early Mothers of Invention stuff, and then we jump off into other eras of his career. The sound of his music from one record to another is drastically different, which is really astonishing when you consider that music, especially Western music, only consists of 12 musical tones. He was able to continually rearrange those in different patterns than anybody else used. It’s almost like he had a whole set of tools that other people didn’t have.
Was your dad’s immense talent as a songwriter and performer overshadowed by his sense of humor?
I think so, and that’s one of the reasons I started playing his music and purposefully underemphasized those humor elements. I wanted to give people a broader view of his compositional skills. Through no fault of his own, the songs that got on the radio were on shows like Dr. Demento, which played funny songs about quirky things. And then stuff like “Valley Girl” made its way to pop radio here and there. It’s easy for people to go, “Oh, I get it. He’s that comedy/novelty guy.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Did you learn any parenting tips from your dad, which you passed down to your kids?
I have experiences that I draw from. But there’s a new movie about him called Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words that just came out. It’s made up of interviews with Frank. I took my daughters to see the film, because they obviously never got to meet him. It was really cool to see their reactions. They went away with this idea that he was really smart and funny and sarcastic, and they saw that within our family and themselves as well. So it was funny to see them rally behind that.
There’s a forthcoming biopic that’s coming from Alex Winter called Who the F*@% Is Frank Zappa, which has fundraised over $500,000. And the ZFT has given Winter unprecedented access to your dad’s personal archives. Ahmet seems really excited about it…
I have nothing to do with that, and I don’t support it at all. The ZFT would like you to believe the film has the blessings of all of us, but that’s not the case. My sister Moon and I don’t support the film and haven’t been involved with it at any stage ever.
Another Zappa film, Roxy the Movie, which was originally shot in 1973, came out late last year. Were you pleased with the final results?
I haven’t seen it. I worked on it originally a long time ago. I made the first trailer for the film and I was supposed to continue to work on it, but there was a falling out between me and my mother over it. But it was a great era of Frank’s career. Great band, great music. The camera work was definitely shoddy, but it’s probably still a great document of the time.
Two new Zappa titles are scheduled for July 15, Frank Zappa for President and The Crux of the Biscuit.
I have no idea what they even are. I’ve heard about them, but I don’t have anything to do with them. I don’t know what’s on there.
Are Ahmet and Diva negotiating these deals without your knowledge?
Yup, that’s how my mother created the business and how she wanted it to run. My sister Moon and I are completely shut out. I’m not sitting here complaining and going, “Oh, it should be so much different.” I’m a realist. It definitely was not handled the best way it could have been by Gail, and it’s not being handled well by Ahmet and Diva. But there are choices that people make, and they have to live with them. And there is completely the ability [for Ahmet and Diva] to make a difference and rectify and solve the injustice of the situation, it’s just that that’s not the path that is being chosen by the people that have the ability to fix stuff.