EQ Magazine 1997 issue eight:
"Growing up Zappa- Dweezil moves into a project studio all his own."
by Mr. Bonzai
Dweezil Zappa finds inspiration not in his father's Neve-equipped utility muffin research kitchen, but in his small Mackie based project studio.
Mr. Bonzai: Where are we?
DZ: I call this room "Bitch Stevenson Sound". He´s my joke sportscaster. "Hello, Bitch Stevenson here for Fox Sports."
What have you got here at Bitch Stevenson Sound?
I have so many ongoing projects that I needed to learn how to operate on my own, so I could work whatever hours I wanted and do much more experimenting with ideas and recording. To do that, I had to get a simple but functional board, and Mackie was the one for me. I set myself up in this room inside the bigger studio here at the Zappa house.
It seems ridiculous because we have a Neve console in the other room and great equipment, but it requires having a second engineer. Also, there are Neve-projects that need to be worked on at the same time that I am working, so that room needs to be available. It made sense for me to have my own inside the bigger space. I can expand if I want to and take it to the other room and mix with full automation. I have the best of all possibilities now. This is low maintenance.
What else do we have here?
I've got these Yamaha NS10´s, 24 tracks of DA-88. We already had a lot of good mics here, so I've been lucky with that. Next, I´ll get some other items to improve my room- extra mic pres, maybe some special EQ. This started as a project studio, but it's more functional than any other studio I've worked in- for me, anyway. I want it to carry it all the way through in here, so I am starting to expand. What I like is that anybody can get this kind of equipment.
It's simple and easy to use. I don't like reading manuals- they hurt my feelings.
And can you bounce this up to master level?
Yeah, and it's fast to work in here. You can do edits and all kinds of stuff with these machines. I like em and I like this board a lot.
Even the EQ. Some people say, "well, you only want to use EQ for special occasions." But you know, everything is a special occasion for me. I want to plug in and tweak the knobs until it sounds right. I don't care if I'm using the EQ if it sounds like what I'm interested in.
Being confined to this space, I try not to go in and out of the room. That's why I'm mainly doing direct guitar recording. Sometimes, If I really need that kind of sound, I´ll leave one mic set up on a cabinet. I have it set up in the big room and I just run a cord in here and plug in.
I've done 90 percent of my new work in here with this DigiTech stuff, the Zoom, and direct into the board. This is the new DigiTech guitar thing- Studio Guitar System 2112. It's got some "tubes" in it, as well as the solid state. It's like a pre-amp, and it's recommended use is with an amp- then it sounds the best. But for the kind of guitar sound that I've been looking for, I didn't necessarily sound like amp sound. I wanted them to sound almost fake. Sometimes when you record direct, say with just a distortion pedal right into your board, you get this sound that's in your face, really weird, only fuzz. It was interesting to me that I never did this before. I thought I had to always play through an amp.
Not only was it convenient to just plug it in because I didn't have to go anywhere, it ended up being a texture that was more interesting for the songs that I'm currently writing. I'm moving away from what I used to do, and the sounds that I'm playing with are not necessarily like the "old school" rock sound. They're in between everything.
You call it "pop music with weird guitars?"
That's what I am looking for now, because I like melody. I can appreciate some of the progressive music that has no real melody, but if I am going to sit down and listen to something- I prefer to enjoy the melody.
Call me crazy, but I am one of those people.
What's this Zoom thingie?
They make all sorts of products and this one is about five years old. I made some patches for it. They had all kinds of guitar players design sounds, and I made some for this one. This is the 9050. And I have tons of interchangeable pedals. What you see here is just a third of what's usually on the floor.
What's this plaid one?
It's the Monkey Dance, the Glow Vibe, and it's got a real warbly sound. It's hard to use. You can't use it a lot, because it has a real specific texture.
Are these your two main guitars?
This weird-looking guitar was made by a friend of mine. I forgot that I owned it and just found it the other day. It turns out that, of all my guitars, this one sounds the best for direct recording. The company who made it is called Moser, but it's in the shape of a Duosonic Fender. It almost reminds me of Adrian Belew. And I have this old acoustic Gibson, but there are many guitars nearby. I've been playing the Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster a lot in here.
When we spoke a few years ago you had about a hundred guitars but you were shooting for 300.
I was getting closer, and then I started thinking that there were some that I never played. If they haven't come out of the case in five years, there's not a strong possibility that I am going to be using them real soon. So I just sold a bunch of them to the Hard Rock, and a bunch to friends who were looking for new guitars. I wanted people who play guitar to have some of the really good ones, and I wanted people to see some of the really cool ones. I liked ´em, but I knew they were just sitting in my locker in cases. It's just good for people to see them.
What are you working on now?
I'm trying to finish something I started six years ago, back when people were still into guitar. Today, guitar playing and certainly virtuoso guitar playing is completely buried. There are only a few communities in the world who still appreciate guitar, maybe a small town in Sweden or way off in Japan. Anyway, when I started this project the idea was to have as many of my favorite guitar players as possible. I would write music with specific players in mind and have them all play, and have one continuous piece of music that lasted the entire length of a CD. So it's 75 minutes with about 45 guitar players playing randomly throughout, with every style of music I could put into it, playing every guitar that I owned, and using every guitar sound that I could come up with.
Some of the guests?
Edward Van Halen, Eric Johnson, Brian May, Steve Morse, Albert Lee, Angus and Malcolm Young, Yngwie Malmsteen, Blues Saraceno, Warren DeMartini, Brian Setzer, Joe Walsh. And some friends of mine. Tim Pierce, Steve McKnight. There's a lot of different players. I'm going to cue the CD so that people can go to certain solos. And I hope to include Sonic Solutions pictures of what it actually looks like when they are playing. Maybe a book should go along with it. There's even ethnic music. I did the music of the Bulgarian Women's Choir on guitar.
Is it almost done?
It's like a giant "connect the dots", and I've just about connected all the dots. Now I have to color it- a few more overdubs and then mix. It's 95 percent done as far as recording, and I hope to finish it this year. I'm waiting to get Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and a couple others. I want them to be on it. I wanted to have everyone that was inspirational to me in wanting to play guitar. Unfortunately, some of my favorite players have passed away since the project started- my father, of course, and Stevie Ray Vaughn (sic).
I just wanted to see if it could be done. It's not like others records that have had a lot of guest guitarists- it's randomly connected tidbits that propel it forward. It's like an audio movie and you think about all sorts of things as you listen. It's a crazy thing to try to do. That's why it's called What The Hell Was I Thinking?
What is about this new material you played for me today?
I've been working on my own solo record since I put this room together about a year ago. I've recorded about 35 songs in here, and I´ll choose what I like best. there have been so many experiments that I really didn't know which direction the record would go. I have some of the most serious songs I've written and I also have some of the most ridiculous songs I've ever written. I don't know if they all fit together, so I might have two records. But I enjoy a certain levity throughout a serious album. I have a short attention span, so I like things to change. And, in some bizarre way, there is continuity with this material.
What about the Beatles influence here?
I got obsessed with the Beatles's "Polythene Pam", and couldn't get it out of my head. I decided to do my own version and be done with it. I tried to record a version where the front half sounds identical to the original and halfway through it turns into a techno-version, but without any keyboards. Just guitars. On this one I played all the instruments except the drums. I'm trying to do everything I can by myself just to see what it will sound like. Also, I work late at night, and it's not easy to get somebody to come over and play bass at four in the morning. Well, I might get my friend Blues Saraceno to do it.
Doing any touring?
I haven't been doing any touring. I've lost the interest for the time being. Ahmet and I haven't been doing any projects lately- we're on totally different wavelengths. But we want to do some TV stuff together. As much as music is the main thing for me, I was never into the idea of being a touring person. I don't like travelling. I'm happier with a simple routine.
Ultimately, I´d like to get into scoring. That's another reason why I put this studio together. So I would have confidence in knowing quickly I could deliver something. I did the music for these ESPN commercials that we did for baseball- they're kind of funny. We're the baseball detectives. We use excessive force whenever possible. We even beat the shit out of Gary Coleman, which was a lifelong dream come true.
Do any of the Zappa kids have kids?
Nope. People often wonder what we would name our children. I have no idea.
Did you once change your name?
I never did. I had the fortunate experience of being in a shoe store when I was four years old and this big kid came over and was threatening me. He said, "What's your name?" I told him "Dweezil" and he said it was a stupid name. I said, "What's your name?" He said "Buns". At that point I never questioned the validity of my name. I thought my name was cool- compared with Buns. I thought, "I don't have a problem."
Both Ahmet and Moon wanted to change their names. When Moon was little she wanted to change her name to one she considered to be normal, which was "Beautyheart".
Ahmet was tired of being called "Ahmet Vomit" at school. There was a construction worker at our house who Ahmet thought was cool. He had a motorcycle and his name was Rick. So, Ahmet wanted to be "Rick Zappa." the next day he went to school and told everybody he'd changed her name. "I'm now Rick Zappa." Everybody goes "Rick the Dick." He went right back to "Ahmet Vomit"
Why are you a guitarist?
I enjoy the guitar, I gotta say, just because it's the most versatile instrument. You can make it sound almost any way you want. You can torture it, you can bend the strings. There's just so much that can be done with it.
Are you an E-mail guy?
I receive so much e-mail that I've almost decided I never want to look at it. I just get random stuff, and I've got a backup of 3000 messages that I´ll never get to.
What's wrong with the music industry?
there is so much wrong with the music industry, that it's impossible to fit it all into this article. Currently, what bothers me the most is that there's a lack of bands being signed that will have any longevity. It's all about the "one-hit wonder". There's no concentration on excellent musicianship. It's all about the right hat, the right hairdo. That's frustrating for anyone who actually enjoys music and people playing real instruments. There's all these popular bands who sample everything, no guitar, and they're just rhyming stuff over other peoples recorded work. Then they're touted as genius musicians. I have a difficulty with them being called musicians, because manipulating others people's music doesn't make you a musician. A technician, maybe.
Is there anything good?
I think there is. Even out of the stuff I complain about there are good things. I used to be much more judgmental, but I can't be bothered to be in that headspace anymore. If I don't like something, maybe it's just not for me. Other people clearly enjoy it.
Ultimately, the thing that is really annoying is that anything can get popular if it gets exposure.
People are so ridiculous- MTV, all the radio stuff. It's so political and there's no space for new music. There could be. There are so many bands that could be successful if they had exposure. It seems wrong to me that only certain bands, based on the kind of deal they make, get the big push.
You can't get any airplay if your video is not being played, and maybe they don't play your video because you're not getting any radio airplay. It's a Catch-22 that's beyond insane. You struggle to break through in small clubs and you ruin yourself.
What music would you like played at your funeral?
I don't know that I would care. the stuff I've always liked listening to is not necessarily appropriate for a funeral. How about Van Halen´s "One" or "Eruption".
If you could go back before recording gear was invented, what would you like to hear?
I like the Baroque period, full of melody. The Renaissance period would be a fascinating thing to witness. The best ideas were just being made up back then.
How would you sum up your experience as a TV sitcom star?
Oh, it was absolutely brutal. The TV show that we did bore no resemblance to the concept that was the original idea for the show. We were put through the TV wringer. Frank told us, "You really don't want to be involved in this industry." He was talking to me and Moon. "I know that you guys want to be excellent at what you do, and you´re not allowed to be excellent at anything on TV."
Any business insights for musicians?
I'm still trying to find them myself. It's hard enough to make a living doing anything, and doing something you enjoy doing might be the hardest. For a musician, it depends on the instrument. For guitar players, there are very few opportunities because the instrument is not looked at in the same way that it used to be. There used to be an interest in playing rock guitar, but now it's all about learning a few chords. Guitar is almost the kiss of death right now. It's all keyboards, sampled guitar, loops and manipulation. They don't need guitar players. Bass players might have an easier time finding jobs.
What about drummers?
Yes, but you have to be good at programming these days.
What's the biggest mistake of your life?
I don't think I've made it yet. [laughs]
What would you like Santa to bring you this year?
Hmmm... Y´now, I'm thinking maybe some old Neve EQ´s, maybe some nice compressors...
ANATOMY OF A SONG: "WHAT IF"
Dweezil Zappa and Mr.Bonzai investigate the creative process.
Mr. Bonzai: What inspired this song?
Dweezil Zappa: Well, I was really frustrated and a bit depressed because of a girl. Everything seemed like we were headed into a relationship, and then suddenly we had to slam on the brakes. I guess it was a timing issue. She was too soon out of another relationship to be involved in another one. to get my mind off the whole thing, I had to write a song about it.
Could you give me some key lyrics?
Whatever doesn't kill you
Makes you stronger than before
When you least expect to fall
You fall even more
It's easier to break up
And go back and take a look
It feels worse to wonder
About the chance you never took
When did the melody arrive in your brain?
I wrote both at the same time on this one because I was in an obsessive/compulsive-type mood. I had to find a distraction, anything to keep my mind off phone calls to this girl. I pretty much wrote the whole thing in one sitting, which I tend to do anyway.
Next we go into your little studio. What comes first?
I put a Boss drum machine part down.
Does that go the whole length of the song?
Yes, and I try to make sure that songs aren't longer that five minutes so I timed this out to be about four and a half.
I don't know how to program my drum machine in terms of bars and measures, and I don't really care to investigate it. I just choose one pattern and let it play all the way. then I play a guitar part to it.
All the way through?
If I can make it all the way through without mistakes, but usually I do a few punches. After the guitar part, I sing along to make sure that I played the proper arrangement.
Do you record that vocal?
No- next I figure out what kind of textures the song needs to come alive. This song has a lot of chord changes and a lot of lyrics, so I needed to break up all the vocal stuff with little guitar melodies throughout the song. I wanted a guitar sound that still sounded like a guitar, but not necessarily the same as a lead guitar. I wanted it to sound like weird melody stuff, and you wouldn't be sure if it was a guitar or not.
What guitar did you use?
The one that's in these photos you took.
Are you processing the guitar?
Yes, through the Zoom. I got really lazy, and decided that it was easier to go direct, or straight into the board through certain types of effects boxes. I just got to the point where it was just too much for me to walk out of my little cubicle to put a mic on the cabinet. [Laughs]
That's too far to walk, man. I gotta plug direct. I use the Zoom and got a nice ring-modulator sound- it ends up sounding like a keyboard, but with the personality of a guitar.
What's your next track?
After that, I decided that I had enough little things breaking up the vocals, so I might as well start singing, here in my little room.
What mic do you prefer?
I had a Neumann U87 set up, so I used that. But I've been meaning to experiment with other mics.
One track of vocals?
For the lead and the verses, yes, but in the chorus it becomes three-part harmony, so I did those next. Once the vocals was done the song was coming together and I was thinking, yeah, now it pretty much needs only bass and real drums. I called my drummer, Joe Travers, and had him come down. He played some drums throughout the song, in the big room. I engineered from my little room, but I did have to leave the cubicle to set up for the drums.
How many tracks do you use for drums?
From four to seven, and sometimes I end up multing them down to two. In this case, I had four tracks for his main kit, and then we did an over-dub track. I kept the drum machine, which he plays to, and the machine is a part of the song at this point.
On top of that, he plays a "loop" kind of feel. these days people are using computers and putting loops to everything, but I don't know how to do any of that stuff. My way of getting a loop is getting a really crappy drum sound that sounds like a loop, and then having my drummer play it where I want it, instead of trying to find a place to lock it up in the computer. This works out rather well. I use this mic that's like a principle's microphone for the school PA. I put that about ten feet away from the drum kit and compress the hell out of it, distort it- and here's my loop sound. just one track, and I put that off far right in the mix, which comes in during the choruses.
What about the bass?
I called my friend Christopher Maloney to play bass on this one. He has many basses, but I tend to make him use this one bass sitting in my cubicle. It's one of the original basses that was played on a lot of the Mothers of Invention records- an old Hoffner bass, semi-hollow body, with a sound that works for the material I am doing these days. I keep experimenting to find the best way to get a decent bass sound. This time I put it through the Zoom, but I bypassed everything, so it's like a direct box. And then I'm used a compressor and a little EQ.
After that I decided there were still spots in the song that needed more tension to make the song move along. I didn't want it to stand out too much, but just give it a feel that something else was going on.
I had to find another weird guitar sound, something that sounded almost backward. I put this "Monkey Dance" effect on it, so it's got this shaky, tremolo with a backward sound and I played this counter melody that goes in the verses, like a leading voice that moves along with the chords. That's off to one side in the mix- just kinda sits there. It's interesting, because your ear goes from listening to the lyrics to this melody thing and you don't really know what it is. It almost sounds like a Theremin.
Then I thought I was done, except for the fact that I wanted to accent a couple of chords that happen here and there. I used a different guitar, one that I designed with these Japanese guys at Performance Guitar. It's got a special parametric EQ built in, and when you turn the knobs, you can get different frequency responses. For this song, I used what sounds like a really extreme wah-wah peddle. You can go from the lowest low midrange to the highest midrange and it will make these massive sweeps- it sounds like a chord explosion.
Is this guitar commercially available?
They made a few. If people tried to convince the guys at Performance, they might be able to get them to make one. It has a weird shape and weird electronics. I have one, and I think they might have made a few more and sent them to Japan. It's shaped somewhere between a Fender Music Master and a Charvel Surfcaster, but then squashed. It's comfortable, sits on your lap like a Stratocaster, well balanced it just looks odd. I put some chords on with that guitar and at this point I'm pretty much done, unless I decide that it needs a little "plinky" sound that would keep time a little bit in the verses, almost like what a tambourine would do, but on guitar. That's the only thing left.
So, we'll call this an almost complete song.
Yes, and then we mix. Right now, I am choosing the best four or five songs and then I'm going to talk to some record companies- some major record companies- which I haven't done for about eight years.