BY DAVID A. BRENSILVER | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
“Ryan Brown, in any show, has to play parts that were played by Terry Bozzio or Chad Wackerman or Vinnie Colaiuta or any of the drummers that played with my dad, and they all have a certain personality to them,” says Dweezil Zappa, leader of the incredible touring musical tribute to his father Frank Zappa, now in its 12th year. Understanding how each player’s style and personality helped shape the music — and having the skill and ability to slip into each player’s head, hands, and feet — helps deliver what Dweezil aptly refers to as “music from the future” to new audiences around the world.
“That is definitely a skill that benefits the music,” Dweezil says, “because when we’re playing songs from different eras, we go through a lot of processes to do the sound design for the instrumentation so that it’s evocative of that era. One of the key factors in making it really give you that time-machine feel is the drums themselves, and the way that they’re nuanced.”
This fall, the guitarist heads out on the road again with the group, formerly known as Zappa Plays Zappa and now known simply as Dweezil Zappa, for the “Choice Cuts” tour, which features a set list covering his late father’s vast and inimitable catalog. Drummer Ryan Brown, who has been with the band since 2013, says the repertoire is “possibly more varied throughout the catalog than anything I’ve ever done with (Dweezil).”
Understand that for the last tour, the band rehearsed 61 songs to pull from, says Brown, with Dweezil making the set list oftentimes five minutes before showtime. It’s also possible that on any given night he might be called upon to play any one of the 150 Zappa songs he knows. For those unfamiliar with the music, these aren’t dive-bar-blues-jam-night kind of tunes; odd time signatures, unpredictable starts and stops, and adventurous song structures are common throughout the catalog.
After all the preparation that goes into learning and playing the material — preparation that can be traced to his teenage years — Brown hits the stage each night with obvious enthusiasm and absolute confidence. “It’s sort of like The Matrix,” he says. “You’re like, I know kung fu. You’re not really thinking about it; you’re kind of watching yourself play.”
For Brown, it’s the dream gig, one that continues to push his playing to new levels. At press time, he’d played more than 375 shows with Dweezil’s band. “I know my playing has changed a lot over the last five years,” he says. “I’ve never played this well in my life, and it’s only because of the opportunity [Dweezil’s] given me to play this music all the time.”
LETʼS BE FRANK
Brown’s immersion into Frank Zappa’s music began when he was 14, three years after he’d started playing drums. He’d gotten a copy of Zappa In New York when he was 13, but “wasn’t ready,” he says, being shocked by some of the lyrics. Even when he revisited the album a year later, Brown “didn’t get it,” but found a connection thanks to Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch. By that time, he had another year of drumming and another year of playing in his school jazz band under his belt and had started playing along with some of the more straightforward material, like “No Not Now.”
Seeing a magazine ad for Frank’s mail-order company, Barfko-Swill, Brown saved his earnings from mowing lawns and had his mom send a check for “The Black Page Drum Solo/Black Page #1” and “Black Page #2.” When he received the parts in the mail, he says, “I think that’s what hooked me.”
Brown’s dive into Frank’s music went deeper at Indiana University, where he earned a degree in jazz studies and percussion. There, he studied with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra percussionist Tom Stubbs, jazz-studies pioneer David Baker, and rock drummer Kenny Aronoff, among others. “[It was] this perfect mix of orchestral, jazz, and rock,” Brown says. “That is this gig.”
He also took Andy Hollinden’s class “The Music of Frank Zappa,” and for his senior recital arranged “Black Page #2” for a 10-piece band and segued from that into the Thing-Fish Prologue (sans narration), over which he played a solo. Any time he had to write a paper or transcribe something it was about or by Frank Zappa. In 2013 he put that years-long immersion to use, earning a spot in Dweezil’s band after going through a comprehensive audition process reminiscent of those that Frank put so many of his own musicians through.
For the current tour, as they have for previous outings, Brown and his bandmates learned specific versions of Frank’s songs — from specific performances — per Dweezil’s usual approach to putting together set lists. The set list includes, among other pieces, a bootleg version of “Cocaine Decisions” that Dweezil found on YouTube; the first-known recorded version of “Florentine Pogen,” which Brown points out “is not remotely close to what’s on One Size Fits All”; and their performance of “Drowning Witch,” which is itself an amalgam of 15 different performances.
“Dweezil is 100 percent specific about what he wants,” Brown says. “And sometimes he might be like, ‘We’re going to do this tune, but for the solo section we’re going to do this bootleg I found on YouTube from 1977, but only for the solo section.’”
While the band learned the 1984 version of “Sleep Napkins,” Dweezil told Brown to adhere to the form and feel — but eschew the reggae groove — of a version Wackerman played during a soundcheck recorded on the 1988 tour. Even with his encyclopedic knowledge of Frank’s catalog, Brown had never heard of the song before joining the band. That’s because no official recording of it had ever been made.
That kind of specificity reflects an appreciation for Frank’s “Project/Object” concept. In The Real Frank Zappa Book, Frank explains: “Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’ Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: A novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel.”
For example, on “Dragon Master,” from Dweezil’s 2015 album Via Zammata’, Brown played a fill that Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson played on the version of “More Trouble Every Day” from Frank’s Roxy & Elsewhere. (Frank wrote the lyrics for “Dragon Master” in 1988; Dweezil set them to music.)
Among the numerous live and studio recordings Frank made and released, and the many performances captured by others and preserved on the Internet, are versions of songs that are widely considered “definitive.” In actuality, Frank’s music was constantly evolving. “We’re all married to these definitive versions,” Brown says, “but for Frank, that was one version of countless versions.”
Brown is frequently asked by fans, “How do you memorize all that?” and “How many charts are there?” In response to the latter, he says there are only seven original charts that he’s seen over the course of learning more than 150 Zappa songs. Of those charts, the only one that’s fully composed, note-for-note, is “The Black Page Drum Solo/Black Page #1,” which Frank wrote for Bozzio. The chart for “Black Page #2” is a mallet-instrument part, which Brown used to memorize the rhythms while creating a hybrid arrangement of what Bozzio played on the Zappa In New York album and what Wackerman played on the 1988 tour.
Brown likens the original charts he has seen to big-band charts. For example, Frank’s chart for “Duke Of Prunes,” which appears on Orchestral Favorites in a different arrangement than the version on Absolutely Free, has sections marked with indications of what’s happening in the melody as well as sections in which specific hits and fills are notated, but no specific groove is notated.
When Dweezil and his band hit the road in 2013 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Frank’s Roxy & Elsewhere album, Brown had to combine parts that were originally performed and recorded by Humphrey and Thompson. He more recently took that approach to creating a part for “Cocaine Decisions,” which, on the bootleg version Dweezil chose for the current tour, features percussionist Ed Mann superimposing a part onto Wackerman’s.
The answer to “How do you memorize all that?” is an explanation of how Brown goes about learning the songs. He uses a layered approach, one that calls on his years of experience as a Los Angeles session drummer. The first thing he focuses on is a song’s structure.
“There so much stuff going on,” he says, describing in an understated way the complexity of Frank’s music. “I don’t get bogged down in any of that. I just listen for what the time signature is and what the form of the tune is. I don’t even listen for the drum part at all. That’s the last thing I’ll listen for. Once I have the form, I’ll go back and I’ll be like, What’s the groove in the verse or in the A section? And I’ll write that out. If there’s a ton of hits and fills, I don’t care. Then I’ll say, What could I play right now with the band to get through the tune? Then once I’ve got that down, I’ll go back and say, Where are the hits? What does he hit with Frank? What does he hit with the bass? And then I’ll write that out. Then I’ll go through again and I’ll write out even more minute details. The last part of it is the first part that we all hear — and it’s the last thing that I write down. For me, it all goes back to not even listening to the drum part and just learning the song.”
In other words, the complex drum parts that were performed and recorded by the original extraordinary musicians are the final layers Brown adds to his charts. They eventually become ingrained in his head and muscle memory through many hours of listening and rehearsal.
Multi-instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez, who’s been in the band since Dweezil began performing Frank’s music in 2006, says, “It’s very evident that [Brown] not only has a methodical approach to what he does, but that he is also a big fan of the music and has a fundamental understanding of how Frank has approached many of his songs, and also a real depth of knowledge of the catalog.” He brings the spirit of each drummer’s feel to Dweezil’s performances of Frank’s songs, she says, while imbuing the music with his own voice and personality. “Ryan is a phenomenal musician, an extremely skilled drummer — which has to be the case if you’re going to embark upon the execution of the music of Frank Zappa and all the different drummers that he had.”
Bassist Kurt Morgan, who’s been in Dweezil’s band since April 2012, has a unique perspective on Frank’s music. Morgan worked for several years as the scoremeister for the Zappa Family Trust. That work included archiving and preserving Frank’s original manuscripts, orchestral productions, and arrangements of his music. “The moment that you can see the structure it becomes easier to memorize,” Morgan says of Frank’s music. “It’s so daunting at first, because you can’t really recognize patterns in it. If you have a way — whether it’s some kind of graphical or shorthand way — of visualizing the structure, it makes the memorization part much faster and easier.”
Of learning the material with Brown, Morgan says, “I know that he’s so detail-oriented that I can trust him when it comes to tricky parts. I have moments where I have a question like, ‘How many beats is this? How are you feeling this?’ And he’s always got the answer.”
HOW DO YOU DO?
Brown not only strives for accuracy in the music, but listens carefully to how a particular drummer played a tune — whether that drummer played rimshots on the snare, whether he played the hi-hat with the tip of a stick or the shoulder, how hard he hit the drums. He’s studied the playing styles of the drummers who played with Frank and has paid close attention to their body language. When Colaiuta recently sat in with the band in Los Angeles, Brown stood directly behind the drums, watching how he moved as he played. That personality then becomes part of the music Brown plays with Dweezil.
Though he prefers a four-piece drum set, with Dweezil’s band he expands it just a little bit. The touring setup includes a DW kit with a 22″ bass drum with double pedal, 10″, 12″, and 13″ mounted toms, and 16″ and 18″ floor toms; a 14″ x 7″ custom-built snare drum; 6″, 8″, and 10″ Rototoms; an array of Sabian cymbals; and a Roland SPD-S sampling pad. “That’s the minimum amount of drums I need,” he says, explaining that Frank’s “Inca Roads,” which Dweezil can call at any time, requires all of those drums. And how he plays them is something to which he gives great consideration.
Even though he’s been listening to Frank’s music since he was a teenager, Brown luxuriates in the amount of rehearsing the band does before hitting the road. In March, he and his bandmates held 18 seven-hour days of rehearsals, during which they listened to songs dozens of times, meticulously transcribing parts before playing them.
Once Dweezil’s band starts playing the music together, the songs, over the course of a lengthy rehearsal period, evolve in their own ways — just as Frank’s music did from band to band and tour to tour, and even from show to show. The players in Frank’s bands were vehicles for his music. None of his drummers played “Montana” the exact same way, for example, and, as Brown points out, he wouldn’t have wanted them to.
Writing in The Real Frank Zappa Book, Frank explains: “The body of the song, the melody line, the words, and the chords remain the same, but all aspects of ‘the clothing,’ or the orchestration, are up for grabs, based on the musical resources at hand.”
Brown’s job in Dweezil’s band is to deliver performances that capture Frank’s intent. That takes on another dimension during solo sections. In a 1984 MTV interview, Frank talked about his approach to soloing, saying, “When the time comes up in the song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m going to play, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it and it’s a game, where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it. And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine sitting here.”
Through the “head” of a song, Brown plays exactly what he charted from the recorded performance Dweezil had the band learn in rehearsal. But during solo sections, he plays in the style of whichever drummer performed the specific version of the song that the band is playing. “I’m playing off of (Dweezil) just like a jazz and fusion drummer would play off of a soloist, and reacting to what he’s doing. And then he’s reacting to me and reacting to Kurt,” Brown says.
He reacts in the style of the drummer who was reacting to what Frank was playing, and in doing so adds a measure of his own personality to the song. “I talked to Chester [Thompson] about this once,” Brown says. “He said, ‘You know, man, I got in the band and Frank said, When we get to this section, I want you to track me’” — that is, as Brown explains, “listen to him play guitar and follow what he’s doing, follow the contour of the melody line, if it’s ascending or descending, follow the rhythms, react to the rhythms and follow him . . . . Listen to the ‘Inca Roads’ solo on One Size Fits All, and you can hear [Thompson] tracking.”
Dweezil thinks about it in terms of connecting the dots. “In the solo sections, they’re free and they’re open, and that’s where we get to express our own musical ideas,” he says. “I have a great awareness of my dad’s guitar vocabulary. So, I’m going to draw on that, but I’m going to connect the dots with my own musical ideas. And Ryan is doing the same thing. He can speak the language of whichever drummer he’s playing through at that time, or channeling at that time, and he’s got enough of the vocabulary so that it maintains the integrity of the feel of that era and that whole thing. And then, if I’m playing a line that Frank specifically played and there’s a drum part that might happen to go with that, Ryan’s going to be aware of that, and those things are going to link up. It’s really about the awareness and the extensive vocabulary, and being able to be yourself — but it’s like wearing a costume.”
Brown’s deep understanding of Frank’s intent makes him an important and integral part of delivering “music from the future” in Dweezil’s words, with “authenticity and authority.” Underlying it all is a default setting of being psyched to play music.
“He’s got such a great attitude, and that’s the part that makes playing with him the best experience,” Dweezil says. “And it really is the best version of the band, in my opinion, because what’s possible, musically, is limitless. But the thing that makes it the most enjoyable is that the rhythm section in particular has a great attitude and they have so much fun.”