“Dragon Master” on Via Zammata’ is a full-on Maiden-meets-Sabbath metal song that Dweezil cowrote with his father, Frank. Photo courtesy of Dweezil Zappa
There are some highly pop-influenced vocal harmonies on the album. Did that influence come from pop music you heard when you were growing up?
The only music I heard growing up was my dad’s. I started listening to the radio when I was about 12. Then, I started hearing The Beatles and other things. I only ever heard what Frank was working on at home, or if he was listening to someone else’s record. But over the years I developed an interest in certain things, like The Beatles. I was never a big Beach Boys fan, but I liked the harmonies. As I got older I could appreciate that even more. I was driving home and heard “I Get Around” on the radio and I was like, “You know what? That’s a fucking badass song.” Nobody writes songs that are like that in the sense where it’s all about the vocal arrangement driving the whole chord progression. When a song like “I Get Around” came out there was nothing that sounded like that. And there still really isn’t, to a large degree. There’s some type of Baroque element to some of the Beach Boy harmonies. There’s classical counterpoint-type stuff, even though it’s crafted into a surf-y pop song. “Rat Race” [on Via Zammata’] sounds a little like The Beach Boys meet the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.
How did you craft those harmonies?
They were written on guitar. [The session vocalists] would have the lyrics and hear the melody of what the harmony is supposed to be; they could sing along to the guitar line until they got it in their heads. It was way easier to do that.
Did you take the same approach with the string arrangements on “Truth?”
I wrote the parts and then Kurt Morgan, the bass player, went into Finale and further orchestrated it enough to be able to give it to real people to play. I played all the parts on guitar first. I don’t read music; I just write it and record it. If I need to show it to someone I have to record something and say, “Here’s how it goes.” Then they have to transcribe it.
How did you organize the music from the older demos to present them to the band?
Since some of the songs already had a demo, the band could hear how I did it 20 years ago, and then I’d show them how I’d do it today. It was pretty simple. We actually recorded all the basic tracks in about six days. It took a long time to decide how to add all the overdubs. Part of what I wanted to do was—as far as guitars went—take a back seat, to a degree. This is my first record that has full instrumentation, like keyboards and other things. So I wanted to make sure the vocals were a key part and the bass lines were really featured.
The vocals and bass lines were your guideposts when arranging and writing the tunes?
In terms of what should be able to drive the song forward, the guitar was more texture on top. The foundation was really the bass line and the vocals for most of the songs. As far as the guitar sounds went, I wanted things to be mono and really specific in the stereo field. A lot of the songs might have little counterpoint parts. There’s always something fixed in just the left speaker. It might have a little answer on the right side. I wanted to simplify my approach in a lot of ways. That’s how it started and then some of the songs got complicated over time.
What songs took the biggest leap from demo to album?
Some of the demos had more on them than the finished versions on the record, so it was really about stripping away stuff. The song “Nothing,” for example, has one rhythm guitar part through the whole thing with a couple little lead lines and a solo at the end. There’s one clean rhythm part that sits on the left side and then you have ambience on the right side that gives it some spatial representation. I wanted it to sound like you were making an old analog record and you had to really not use up too many tracks and be very specific with your ideas. But then some of the songs had lots of tracks. “Hummin’” has a lot of different textures. “What If” has a fair amount of overdubs. “Dragon Master” has two mono rhythm guitars. In the chorus there’s a third guitar that comes in. “Rat Race” has one guitar. “On Fire” has a lot of textures, but it mainly has a pretty clean guitar and a slightly distorted guitar to give it an edge. “Jaws of Life” has one electric rhythm, some acoustics, and a fuzz guitar that comes in.
“Malkovich” is an incredibly interesting song, with the spoken word performance. Where did that come from?
I love his movies. He’s a great actor. He did this cool photo exhibit and he wanted to have a music element to it. The idea that he and his cohorts came up with was that he would do a spoken word performance and then give it to 12 or 13 people and say, “Here, do what you want.” Ric Ocasek did a tune, Yoko Ono, Andy Summers, and some others. [The results are on Malkovich’s album, Like a Puppet Show.-Ed] I haven’t heard anybody else’s tracks, but the thing that’s funny is that we all had the same [vocal performance] to work from. The other weird thing, which is very John Malkovich, is that all of the songs have to have the word “cryo” or “genia,” or have an X or Y in the title. My song—it’s coming on my record and his at the same time—is called “CryoZolon X.”
We have to talk about “Dragon Master.” You mentioned it was the only song you wrote with your dad.
He gave me the lyrics in 1988. Over the years, different versions of the song came together but we never released them.
Did he get a chance to hear a version of it?
Yeah, he heard a version of it back when the whole thing was more of a joke. For example, his lyrics are clearly a joke, so the early version made fun of metal and had some speed metal things in it and was heavier. On this record I wanted to actually play the idea more seriously and make it a full-on traditional metal song. Like Iron Maiden meets Black Sabbath, but for real! Anyone who’s a metal fan can hear the lyrics and clearly know that they are preposterous and a joke. But people that are into metal, the imagery that is created by the lyrics—it’s not a joke to them. They are like, “This is fucking dead serious. It’s time for business.” One of the fun things about doing the vocals is that the guy who sings it, Shawn Albro, is actually a cousin of Ronnie James Dio. So we [asked him] to put some Dio-isms in it, and Shawn was like, “What do you mean?” You know how Ronnie sometimes adds an extra syllable to a word that doesn’t need it? There’s a line that says, “Hate the day. Hate the light.” So I had him add an extra syllable to “light-a.” I did my best Dio impression and he was like, “Oh, okay. So make it cool?” That’s what I love about that song, because it stands on its own. If this were 1982 this would be the biggest fucking metal song in the world.