Mission Impossible
Guitarist|December 2019
A half-century after the album’s original release, Dweezil Zappa’s forthcoming tour aims to recreate his late father’s mind-boggling Hot Rats in forensic detail. He told us about the ultimate labour of love, recreating stolen instruments and walking in a dead man’s shoes…
Henry Yates

There’s a good reason why you’ll never hear a covers band attempt Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. It’s impossible. It’s unperformable. It’s unfathomable. Even putting aside the art-rock icon’s leftfield guitar virtuosity, the 1969 album is a tapestry of overdubs and tape manipulation, a web of sonic subterfuge and obtuse one-off manship, with makeshift ‘instruments’ that include a plastic comb and a mechanic’s wrench. Given that even Zappa himself couldn’t recreate these tracks on the stage – what hope do mere mortals have?

But that hasn’t stopped Dweezil Zappa accepting the challenge. For the last 13 years, the fabled guitarist’s talented son has been the frontman and driving force behind Zappa Plays Zappa: a passion project that seeks to keep his late father’s music alive. Now, in a new chapter that has seen the guitarist slip between the roles of detective, genealogist and gear anorak, Dweezil has dissected every last element of Hot Rats – from signal flow to studio tricks – and he will present the results at seven UK dates in December, starting at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

“We want these shows to be like a time machine,” he says.

What made you want to bring Hot Rats to the stage?

“Well, it’s always been one of my favorites. I have a connection to that record that’s more than just musical because it was made the year I was born and dedicated to me. To me, it’s one of the records that showcased my dad’s guitar playing in a new way. When you hear Hot Rats, compared to the early Mothers Of Invention stuff, there’s a different feel. It’s got a ton of attitude, y’ know, songs like Willie The Pimp and The Gumbo Variations have some ripping guitar. But then it’s got compositions like It Must Be A Camel, where you think, ‘How did he come up with this stuff?’ There’s a couple of songs he never played live, too, like Little Umbrellas and It Must Be A Camel. You won’t find live versions of those anywhere; they only exist on Hot Rats.”

What stage was Frank’s career in 1969?

“He was still in his 20s, moving towards more complicated music and getting musicians that could play this harder stuff – because the Mothers Of Invention guys couldn’t. He dropped the Mothers Of Invention name and he was out on his own. And what you’ll hear when you dive into Hot Rats – particularly on Little Umbrellas and It Must Be A Camel – is that it’s much more the work of a composer, as opposed to a pop songwriter. You’re hearing him really go deep into the compositional realm. The textures, the harmonies, the layers of instrumentation, the arranging, the way he manipulated instruments and changed their character: that’s what makes Hot Rats special. You won’t hear that on any other record of his – or any other record, for that matter.”

How did you approach the guitar parts?

“Well, I had to make a decision: how much of this record will I play note-for-note? Certain things were worth playing exactly the same. Like, obviously, the solo in Peaches En Regalia and Son Of Mr. Green Genes, because that song is just so idiosyncratic. It’s my dad, doing what he does, and you’re not gonna stop it. For others, like Willie The Pimp, I chose to learn a lot of the phrases but fill in the spaces between those guideposts with my own playing so I can also be free in my improvisation. But even when I’m playing freely, I’m still filtering what I play through his vocabulary. I know a lot of things that my dad would favour, the things that would be something he’d play. I didn’t want to take a big left-turn and suddenly think, ‘Oh, we’re in a totally different space.’”

Are there any signature techniques on the Hot Rats album?

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