Frank Zappa’s 1969 record Hot Rats is notable for a number of reasons. It was Zappa’s first album after breaking up The Mothers of Invention. It’s also a largely instrumental release that made use of 16-track recording and post-production studio manipulation.
The only vocals on the album come from Zappa’s good friend Captain Beefheart, who fronts the blues rock number ‘Willie the Pimp’. A teenaged Shuggie Otis plays bass on Hot Rats’ signature song ‘Peaches En Regalia’. And the electric violinists Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty also make significant contributions.
Despite being predominantly instrumental, Hot Rats is a true fan favourite. It’s held up as a landmark album in the fields of jazz fusion and prog rock, and its crusading tenor survives to this day.
The record came out one month after the birth of Zappa’s first son, Dweezil. Dweezil Zappa has spent much of his adult life performing his father’s music all around the world. He previously helmed the band Zappa Plays Zappa, but these days operates under his own name.
In celebration of Hot Rats’ 50th anniversary last year, Dweezil and his band have been beginning their shows by performing the album in full. That’s exactly what they’ll be doing when they come to Australia in April for Bluesfest and a series of headline dates.
Music Feeds spoke to Dweezil about Hot Rats and his father’s legacy.
Music Feeds: Hot Rats came out a month after you were born and was dedicated to you. Your recording of ‘Peaches en Regalia’ won a Grammy in 2009 and a version of the song also featured on your 2006 solo album Go with What You Know. Is Hot Rats an album you really cherish?
Dweezil Zappa: I have a connection to it that is different to the other records having had it dedicated to me. But I think everybody seems to have high regard for this album and I think it comes down to it being something that was different compared to the rest of my dad’s records. It was the first one that jumped out where he really was featured as a guitar player.
MF: There was a lot of genuine innovation in the recording methods, not just the songwriting on this album. Did that pose difficulties when learning how to play it live?
DZ: A song like ‘Peaches En Regalia’, when you hear the sounds that are on that record people might not know what really went into it. So, for example, there’s a lot of tape speed manipulation to make different instruments sound different ways. So there are certain horns that were recorded at different speeds so it would increase their range so they could hit notes that they wouldn’t be able to hit otherwise.
He took a bass guitar and recorded it at a different speed. So, he was tremolo picking it and then when he played it at normal speed it had this interesting sound. It sounds like a synthesiser but it’s before synthesisers were even a thing.
So there’s all these things on it plus sped-up percussion – so we hear drums and cymbals that were recorded at different speeds so they have a much higher pitch. And all this unique manipulation of the sounds really adds something to it.
MF: Frank Zappa has a very passionate following. Do you feel pressure to be as precise as possible as a result of that sort of fanaticism?
DZ: It’s never really been something for me to be too concerned with or even really consider in the process. But there definitely are times when you’ll get certain people who think that they’re the extreme know-it-all.
For example, the very first tour that we did we were playing this song called ‘Regyptian Strut’. And I remember seeing somewhere somebody complaining, saying, “I liked all the stuff in the show except that one song that Dweezil played of his own. I didn’t like that one at all.” And he was referring to that song, ‘Regyptian Strut’, which was one of my dad’s songs.
People just think that they’re the wizards of this stuff. I guess people are always going to do that with any band that they get excited about. It’s almost counterintuitive because there’s a certain kind of mentality where some people find something they like and they want only a small circle of people to like the same thing that they like. They don’t want it to be too big of a club. So if it gets too popular they go against it because they feel like it’s not theirs anymore.
MF: Do you know if that sort of thing ever bothered your dad?
DZ: There were certain factions within the fanbase where some fans only liked the early records, the early Mothers records, and then they didn’t really follow after that era. And then some people only liked the Apostrophe, Over-Nite Sensation, rocky band era. And some people only like the ’80s – it just depends on what was your entrance point into the music.
So when people don’t have an open mind and they’re not willing to explore all of the stuff, that was something that my dad found annoying. It’s like, well you’re missing out on a lot of great stuff if you don’t just open up.
MF: Your recent live shows have included a dozen or more songs after the Hot Rats run-through. Do you feel a lot of curatorial responsibility in putting together a Frank Zappa setlist?
DZ: There’s a certain kind of expectation that some fans may have when it comes to wanting to hear favourites and stuff like. And we try to identify a handful of those things so that we can have those available, but we typically have been really more motivated to give the biggest and broadest cross-section of the material as we possibly can.
So this past couple of tours we’ve dug really deep into the catalogue and played a lot of stuff that has either never been played before or very rarely has been played. And there’s been some real emphasis on some of the earlier stuff. So now that we’re doing Hot Rats and that came out in 1969 we have some other stuff that’s from relatively the same era as well.
But we really do just jump around. Certain stuff at certain times becomes appealing for the band. We listen to certain things and we go, “Oh we haven’t played that in a while.” We just dig through a big, huge list of 5-600 songs and say “ok, what do we want to focus on?”
Dweezil Zappa plays Bluesfest 2020 and a handful of sideshows. Head here for details.