Ahmet Zappa on Frank and fatherhood

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Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd | still from video
Frank Zappa | still from video

What could have been a convivial conversation about re-packaged reissues such as the recently-released Zappa in New York and the minutiae of hologram tours such as the upcoming Bizarre World of Frank Zappa live showcase (May 2, Collingswood’s Scottish Rite Auditorium), wasn’t. That’s because it was Frank’s youngest son and estate conservator Ahmet Zappa and I discussing invention (beyond the Mothers), probability, fatherhood and loss (Zappa’s dad died in 1993, I lost my father at Halloween 2018) in a conversation that wound up with tears and the promise of hugging out such emotion at this week’s concert.


The Key: Your management of Frank Zappa’s archives…we know his vaults of studio and live recordings that have and haven’t yet seen the light of day is endless. What is your vision, not just in what and how to release them, but how to adorn them as the Zappa in New York 40th anniversary deluxe package came in a manhole-covered box, Halloween 77 came with a costume and such?

Ahmet Zappa: It is a combo-platter of things. I wasn’t so familiar with the extras. I grew up with the records, but had nothing to do with the family business until my mother got sick and needed help. I worked on structuring a deal with Universal, a wonderful new partner. My mother’s pride and joy was working on the creative end, so when she passed [in 2015], it was a new reality that I woke up to, where I had to figure my own way, especially as they had their own specific manner in which they worked with my mom. Luckily, it became like one big happy new family, one where I got to wear the archeologist’s hat or miners helmet and go to work, rummaging hat is so much content.

TK: Roxy and Elsewhere and its film, Roxy = The Movie was your first project.

AZ: Yeah, I lean toward the 70s stuff. That was a real joy. I was totally unaware of the process. I knew we had tons of different media in the vault, but how was it organized? I never knew. There is so much cool stuff in there. What I try to do is have a thorough understanding — because I’m a completist — of how the fans will respond. I try and find everything, go through every nook and cranny, when it comes to a specific project, that is complementary to its original. We tried to get it all, and it’s an arduous process.

TK: What was the most fun project so far?

AZ: That Halloween box with the mask and the costume of Frank. I’m working on a new one now, as I envision it as a series of different collectable Frank costumes. That’s me just being inspired by my own childhood. Halloween was such a huge holiday in our house growing up. To make something that feels like a found object from that time….

TK: ….that’s kind-of magical. That’s what I meant by the design element question, how you adorn each release.

AZ: We have a great team wherein, I can think of an idea — ‘let’s so a manhole cover and a box that looks as if it’s been run over by a truck’ — and they help make it a reality.

TK: Am I correct in the knowledge that everything is cool between you and your brother Dweezil? It’s way too much to detail here, and our readers can find the drama elsewhere, but for quite some time before and after your mom passed, the two of you were at odds in relation to what Frank’s legacy was going forward, and what role each of you played in it.

AZ:  I don’t know how to contextualize this, but first, much of this was blown so far out of proportion. The media loves pitting family members against other family members, I never had ill will toward Dweeil. My experience after my mother passed — it was a new reality, There was a communication breakdown.

TK: I’m sure not unlike any family, up to and including passionate Italian families such as yours and mine.

AZ: Definitely, that was a part of it. Essentially, I work for the entire family. Everything I’m doing directly benefits all of us. However family members wish to do what they do and participate is an open door. We have a strange relationship with the business. We’re four kids who inherited the family legacy. I’d love more help. With me there’s no beef, and things are in a much better place than they were. All of my family comes first in this process. My job is to do right by my father and my mother, and the fans that feel what they’re getting feels, looks and sounds good. I don’t ever want any fan to say what we have coming in a rehash of something else. It has to feel and be unique.

TK:  That’s a good segue in which to discuss Bizarre World. You work for and with EyeLution. How did the hologram thing come about in regard to Frank?

AZ: The short story: in terms of making this multimedia, holographic experience, it started with Frank. He was totally interested in creating his own hologram company, and wrote about it in his autobiography. I think it’s in Chapter 18. He opened my mind up as he was always at the forefront of new technologies. He thought it would be beneficial to have his hologram out on the road, while he was at home, working on new music.

TK: He had holograms. Kraftwerk had its robots.

AZ: Yes. He also loved the idea of a world tour in one day, a situation where technology could make such as experience happen. As a kid hearing this, that was so cool. Cut to many years later, my dad is the north star, the guiding light, to everything that I do  The work done through the family trust is work he set me up to do, bringing an idea of his to fruition.

TK: You sound genuinely emotional about it.

AZ: I am emotional about it. I’m really proud of the show  that’s been created. When EyeLution approached me about a hologram show, we sat, broke bread, had margaritas and walked through the boundaries…

TK: And non-boundaries.

AZ: …of what could be possible, what Frank’s desires for the technology were, and such, That was super liberating.  I was totally honored when EyeLution asked me, beyond this project to bring my creativity and think onto other shows and projects. I’m working on other concert experiences that will come out soon, but right now, I’m thoroughly ensconced in Frank’s Bizarre World.

TK: Without breaking it into percentages, how much of Bizarre World is what your dad conceived vs. what you conceived in the present day, and how will we know the difference? Or is it all just the same DNA, and that’s that?

AZ: Let me unpack that. His ideas were the gasoline that fueled my engines. This show feels like his sense of humor, different art styles and sensibilities. Like I know that he lovedovedloved Terry Gilliam the director and animator. We laughed at Brazil and all the Monty Python movies. I think I made something where you can smell those experiences.  I hope I came close. One song in particular, Frank’s “Stinkfoot,” you’ll definitely feel that Gilliam influence. At least I hope so, as we cut out over 3,000 postcards to make that happen. You’ll see. I wanted that song to look like it was about a biological attack, a creepy disease unleashed from the ocean where everyone has a stinkfoot problem. I’m also trying to bring about a sense of the lyrics too.

TK: Is any of Frank and Cal Schenkel’s original art work party of the show?

AZ: They were each other’s he collaborators, and an inspiration to me. You might see some of that artwork, but there isn’t anything specific that he made that’s new, but those who are familiar with his work will recognize his work. They’re touchpoints in Frank’s career. There’s so many details to be seen in Cal’s work that when projected, I think it’s amazing. The same with Bruce Bickford’s Claymation animation in the show, I don’t if people realize how rad his work is. Hopefully, this show will honor him and Cal.

TK:  There is no lack of Zappa band alumni. How did you choose this group?

AZ: I have an emotional attachment to these guys as this band was the one most present in my dad’s studio during my youth.  It was instinct. When you’re 6 and 7, there’s all these people in your house, and you want to be a fly on the wall for everything — and you’re proud of your dad — this was a big deal. These guys were a big deal to me at a very early age. I went with my heart first.

TK: This had to have been a big leap for them: “hey you guys, want to play alongside a hologram?”

AZ: And I have tremendous gratitude to those who jumped in so early. There’s no precedent here, this is totally new. They look a leap of faith in the project and with me.  Here we are, we’re in tech rehearsals, ready to do the first show, and my sister said it best…how amazing it is to hear Frank’s vocals with his band, and Diva walks in and said “this feels like home.” It’s fucking awesome to hear Frank with his band again. Take away the visuals, and it’s Frank’s music, the most important part of who he was. This is it. And the majority of the tracks you’re hearing have never been heard before, as they were from rehearsals.

TK: Is there a political edge to any of this, as that was certainly a part of his philosophy?

AZ: I did try and emphasize his political mind, in the lyrics to his songs, as it pertains to the present. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll think.

TK: I didn’t want to ask this, but you mentioned your sister crying. What I am thinking here though is that, you have Frank the icon on stage. I saw your dad’s shows as kid, here and in New York. But…he is YOUR DAD. How odd and emotional is it having your pop in front of you again? How weird as it the first time? I look at pictures of my dad who just passed, and I cry.

AZ: Not weird, but rather a miracle. When I first saw it, I burst into tears. I have a myriad of feelings that I have about this show that I never discussed because, unlike you, nobody ever asked. My approach to the show is that Frank is cosmic energy, he’s out there. When he passed, I told myself that he just became this cosmic force in the universe and he’s on his intergalactic tour, rocking the aliens. The story in my head is that Frank is generating enough cosmic energy so to appear…and that’s the paintbrush that begins this journey. By the end of the show, the energy is draining and he must return to the cosmos. And every night I cry because I’m losing him again — recalling my childish way of processing my father’s illness, and mentally preparing myself for his passing all over again. I watched him fight for three years, because he had stuff to do, because he’s this macho Italian guy, I watched him fight that disease — I’m teary eyed now — it sucks to lose your dad as a kid.

TK: Every night he returns. Every night he leaves. Wow. I’m about to cry.

AZ: That’s why when naysayers do that thing where we’re only in it for the money, it’s like, fuck that…I need this. This has been the most emotional and creatively fulfilling enterprise in my entire life. When I saw Frank for the first time, I just…it is awesome. I know Frank passed, but for a moment I want to believe, to feel what it is like to have him back. And we did this.

The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa comes to the Kirby Center in Wikes Barre on May 1, and the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood on May 2. Tickets and more information on both shows can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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