Frank Zappa’s Son Ahmet Talks Legacy, Labels, and His Father’s Inventions
Ahmet Zappa opened the vault for Alex Winter’s ZAPPA documentary, but is still fiddling with the combination.
Frank Zappa, who died in 1993, is one of the least understood artists of the 20th Century, which is ironic because he was also the most prolific. Introduced to the world as a bicycle-playing artiste concrète sitting naked on a toilet, he was a harmonic genius who experimented with sonic assault weapons and visual subversions. Frank Zappa was the Nikola Tesla of music. Alex Winter’s documentary ZAPPA, which is now available to watch in the UK and Ireland on Altitude.film, clarifies many of the contradictions by highlighting Zappa’s primary focus. The Mothers of Invention bandleader was a composer.
As such, Frank was also a cultural ambassador, a hero of free expression, a hysterical satirist, and a guitar virtuoso. He was celebrated in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution, and castigated by parental control mongers in America. But even Frank knew his rep enough to drop an album series called Shut Up N Play Your Guitar. It should be compulsory listening for anyone who’s ever put fingers to strings.
For the documentary, Frank’s widow Gail Zappa gave Winter unfettered access to the family vault. The son of “the Son of Mr. Greenjeans” gave him the combination. Ahmet Zappa and his sister Diva became the central scrutinizers of the Zappa Family Trust after Gail died of lung cancer in 2016. Ahmet is a film producer, author and an actor who appeared on Growing Pains, Roseanne, MadTV, and the films Jack Frost and Ready to Rumble. He is also a musician and songwriter. Like his sister Moon, he collaborated with his father, and like all his siblings, he appeared on Zappa releases. Ahmet and his brother Dweezil recorded together, and now each bring their own flavors to the soup of their father’s compositions.
Ahmet, who is an executive producer on ZAPPA, spoke with Den of Geek about the documentary, the vaults, the inventions and other family treasures.
Den of Geek: In a project like this, what kind of things do you learn about your father that you hadn’t expected?
Ahmet Zappa: Not too much on new facts. Through the process of, I guess, preserving not just the video and the audio, you just find things that you just think are awesome, new music or just different things that Frank says that it will have meaning to other people one would hope. It’s a hard way to answer that question because it was a very emotional journey. So, it was more bittersweet in that I feel so blessed to have all this media because I feel like it’s a consolation prize because I lost my mother and father. It’s not a solid replacement, it’s a blessing to have it because it makes me remember them and feel closer to them.
They were pretty forthcoming with a lot of the conversations. We were able to participate and our parents would talk to us about everything. Maybe the biggest mystery was just how many chicks my dad boned. That was surprising. That wasn’t great news, you know what I mean? But I guess it’s rock and roll. I was really naïve to think that that maybe wasn’t going on, but I learned that.
How did you react when you first saw the finished film?
I just loved it. I burst into tears. Similar kind of bittersweet reaction. It’s so emotional and the things that just kind of wrecked me were seeing Frank in pain after he had been attacked after the concert he did at the Rainbow in London. Just seeing my mother being protective of Frank, even crossing the street. Little things like that are so ingrained in how protective my mother was and remembering the effects that my dad had after that accident. A lot of back pain, it forever changed his voice because he almost died. I mean, that part really, really got to me.
Of course, the pride that I have in what an artist Frank was, the champion of artist rights. I’m so biased because I feel like I’m so inside, but I try to give good answers. For me it’s all good. I’ve known Alex for many, many, many years. When he called me up one day and was like, “Hey, how come there hasn’t been an official bio doc on your dad?”
I explained to him, “Well, lots of people have tried and it just wouldn’t go the distance because of the approach and you’d have to speak with my mother.”
I just watched Gail and Alex strike up this pretty fast and deep relationship and I was delighted that Gail felt the way I felt. It did take a lot of trust to have someone embark on telling the story about someone who’s so near and dear to you.
Gail was like, “Look, Alex, the story that you want to tell, you’re going to want and need to have full access to the vault.” That was when I knew, “Oh, this is game on. Gail’s really feeling this.”
Then when I was speaking with Gail, “Look, if we’re going to do this, we want to be able to champion and support Alex because it’s his movie.” He had director’s cut. That part was really important to Gail and I to just tell the story that you want to tell but make it an honest story. Don’t hold anything back. You have access, you have free rein.
I think that was a scary moment, but we had such faith in Alex and I love the end result. I think he did a very loving, caring job. I think that people have a great sense, when they see this documentary, of what it’s like to be a composer, the life of a composer and the extraordinary life that Frank led. I really think it’s a pretty well-rounded, awesome film. But then again, I’m biased.
Being a fan of your father’s sense of humor, I thought the documentary itself was just an elaborate scheme to get him to pay for the remastering.
The truth of the matter is we went into the vault and his jaw dropped. We’re like, “Okay, let’s start.” He didn’t have funding for the doc. He came to the house videotaping Gail. Then when we were looking at the footage of the tapes in the vault, and Alex having a bit of a background, and I was really naïve to this, to be totally honest, of, “Hey, is this media being stored right?”
It was in, as much as we could, a temperature-controlled massive room, just the shelf life of the tape itself was disintegrating. In that process, it became pretty evident that if we can’t save the media, it will be lost forever. The fan base, the gratitude that I have towards the people that came to the rescue of the media is extraordinary.
That was definitely not something that we were too aware of. Alex, having done Kickstarters and those types of campaigns, [said] “Well, maybe we should try to do this because it is so expensive to preserve that media.” Alex convinced me. Gail had passed after he was doing interviews and when we got into the nitty-gritty. Joe Travers, our vaultmeister, on a regular basis, will have to bake tapes in a Ronco food dehydrator. We’re aware of that kind of stuff falling apart, but it’s a whole other pail of fish when you’re having to transfer these tapes that we don’t even have the machines, in many cases, to even play them back on. To get the media off of it, that was a whole other stress point. I’m so grateful that we preserved what we could.
Besides the video and the audio, were there anything like screenplays or maybe the skits Frank wrote for the Saturday Night Live that were never produced?
Oh, yeah. There’s lots of stuff in there. Gail and Frank, they never really threw anything away. We’re always finding things here or there. I found early versions of this project that Frank was working on called “Christmas in New Jersey” which was pretty hilarious. A lot of elements from Thing-Fish were there and other little bits of connection.
I found a lot of his early artwork that blows me away. Cool stuff. That’ll eventually, I would hope, see the light of day. I found this amazing piece of sheet music. I think Frank must have accidentally dripped a bunch of ink all over it and he just then turned that into this awesome dude playing the Congo drums on it. It’s just crazy.
Frank’s penmanship and the way that he would even write music is beautiful to see. Then you throw in him just fucking around with some of the artwork. Even yesterday, we found some really awesome artwork on some of the old letterhead from United Mutations that Captain Beefheart was working on. This must have been at the time that they were probably working on Trout Mask Replica.
It’s kind of bananas, right? You think about someone who passed away really early at 52 and the body of work? I don’t know of another artist who really accomplished as much art as my father. Whether you like his art or not is not the point. It’s that he was just 24 hours a day. Just seemed to be this machine and he just burned the candle at both ends.
It seems that he and Prince were the only artists to ever be in trouble for having too much music.
Yeah, I kind of agree with you. When I talk about it, people are like, “Well, he’s made so much of it.” I’ve also had business dealings where people are like, “Well, there’s just so much. If you have so much, I don’t know, I’ll give you 10 cents on the dollar because there’s so much.”
You’re like, “I don’t think it works that way.”
The movie’s opening in the UK. Can you tell any difference between American and an overseas fan?
I just think Europe, overall, has just a greater appreciation of not just Frank’s music but music and art in general. They have a much longer history of appreciating the artistic endeavors of the individual. I do think that there’s a big audience out there. I’m curious, I’m excited it’s finally coming out overseas because I think people will really enjoy the film. Frank has always had a massive European audience.
The documentary opens with the Czech Republic and Frank was very surprised at his renown. Can you tell me a little bit why Zappa Music had a special classification?
I just remember, as it was happening, the people would express if you have so little money and you were going to buy music, which is kind of extraordinary, they just weren’t leaning towards, I guess, more commercial artists. There must have been a different level of attention and appreciation, I should say, for music with different time signatures and that was more exploratory versus, again, a pop record.
I think it was more the value of how much music you could get on a record and how different it was. Maybe there’s something in that mindset over there in how, again, the arts just overall have a greater level of importance. I think it’s just the greatest that they respected Frank and his music represents freedom over there which is so cool.
Do you think it was the intricacy of the music that made your father’s music so dangerous or do you think it’s how he took serious things so unseriously?
Probably all of it. I think it’s a combination of both, in my humble opinion.
The entire State Department seemed to come out to block his appointment as Czech liaison. Why did they find him particularly frightening, threatening?
I just think that maybe his points of view, although at the time so progressive, but I think that that was maybe a massive negative, where today it’s not that. I think that Frank really changed things for the better with his points of view and expressing, to me, what just feels like common sense.
I grew up in this really progressive household and I remember people thinking that we were so odd. We were like The Addams Family because of the attention our parents would give us and the freedoms that we had and how they supported our individual creativity and all of that. When I would have friends over, they would relish that environment, but I guess the parents, it’s like, “You’ve got to work within this box,” and then Frank was not that person.
ZAPPA tells a story about your sister slipping a note to introduce herself. I was wondering if this opened up an era of collaboration with your father that might not have opened if she hadn’t done that.
I don’t think so. Maybe. But from my point of view, and, again, Moon is seven years older than me, I think for what she needed emotionally, that kind of connection, that was definitely a way to connect. At that same time, Moon was singing on that song “Jumbo Go Away” and I was in the studio singing on “Drafted Again” with Moon. Then later on she did “Valley Girl.”
I don’t know what came first because there was always so much music happening in the house. There were a handful of times where Frank would say, “Okay, I’m going to record you guys. Go get the piano.” There are tapes in the vault of us just playing music. If we had family members over that were funny or exhibited some interesting talent or something, he was like, “Hey, come down to the studio and record it.” He was really present in that way if you got his attention.
Did he watch you practice, monitor your musical progress or give you tips?
I wanted a drum set. He was like, “Ah.” I really was always interested in the drums. Then weirdly he was like, “Why don’t you play the saxophone?” He let me play around on some of the instruments. There weren’t really any kind of restrictions in that way.
I guess the most interesting musical conversations I had with him was over doo-wop. He would play me a lot of his favorite doo-wop records. He was like, “Can you sing like this?” The super falsettos. We were actually talking about doing some doo-wop music and I was going to do some vocals. This is when he was really sick and working overtime and getting as much time as he could. That’s a bummer that we never got to get in the studio and work on that stuff.
That’s when he told me about the fun story. Gail loved Howlin’ Wolf and so did Frank. I was like, “Well, what else do you guys like?” That’s when they started playing me doo-wop and talked about The Persuasions. What an incredible story that is.
Are there any other rock documentaries that you appreciate now having finished ZAPPA?
Yeah, there’s lots that I appreciate for different reasons. One that was really interesting to me just because I’m a big fan of his, but the Harry Nilsson doc I enjoyed. I just love him. I still wish that they would have collaborated. Maybe they did. Maybe I’ll discover that. I love Harry Nillson. His music is kick ass.
What’s happening with The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa?
What’s happening with the world of touring on the planet? We were getting ready to go out again. It’s an expensive show. It’s really technologically intense. It’s costly to ship everything around. You got to be really specific and careful with the routing and also mindful of the band. How many days can you play? We were getting ready to go back out again. Yeah. Just the state of the world.
We were going to do the Zappa Band and King Crimson. We had announced that even. That got pushed. We have every intention of picking both of those things up again.
They’re very different experiences. The Bizarre World is a multimedia extravaganza. When the guys are just playing, they’re playing a bunch of shows. I love those guys. I love all the musicians that played with Frank. Just a shitty situation with COVID.
When we can, we try to do things that help the music community in need. That’s been a lot of my focus when possible to do what we can to give back.
When you’re auditioning musicians to play, do you make them go through musical acrobatics?
For Frank’s music, yeah. You have to play it right. For me, the kind of music I write, it’s not anywhere near as challenging as the stuff Frank was working on. I mostly work with people that worked with Frank. They get it right.
Joe Travers is incredible. Scott Thunes is incredible. Honestly, they can speak to it a lot better than I can as musicians. They worked in the capacity, Scott is the scoremeister in prepping the band and running rehearsals. That’s more of, as an example, someone more qualified than me is the one who’s going to be able to explain if someone’s doing it right or wrong.
There’s lots of variations of the same songs, how they were played. So much of it is about an artist’s individual way of the groove that they lock into with the band. You might have a version of a track that is played pretty straightforward and then there’s a reggae version. You’ve got to have a tight band. Lots of rehearsing goes into pulling off the music sounding professionally played. It’s not something that you’re just like, “Yeah, I’ll meet you on Tuesday. We’ll rehearse for a couple of hours and then let’s jam.” It always takes more time with Frank’s music.
Are you more of a fan of prog music than you are of any other genre?
I certainly appreciate prog music. I have a hard time with the labels. I think people might categorize some of Frank’s music as prog. I just don’t love the name prog rock. To me it’s all rock. I love odd time signatures and I like melody, so I gravitate towards a lot of different musicians. I’m just more of a rock fan and I use that for whatever reason as an overall way to describe what I listen to.
I love heavy metal. To me it’s all rock music. Electrified instruments and interesting singers and I love that. I don’t have a bunch of rap records or hip hop. That’s not a lot of my music collection. I’m just more into people plugging in and threshing their bass, drums, guitar, and great vocalists.
I covered the “Framing Britney Spears” documentary. While I was doing it, your and Dweezil’s version of “Baby, One More Time” was on heavy rotation. How did you pick that song? As a conservator of an artist’s trust, would you have any advice for her?
I haven’t seen the doc and I don’t know. I can’t really speak to her situation. From what little I know from the TMZ-style news is that there’s, I guess, some health concerns there. None of us really know the truth unless you’re in it. I send her lots of positivity and hopefully that all gets sorted out for her.
As it pertains to the “Hit Me Baby, One More Time” track, I was working on Ready to Rumble. It was a wrestling movie. They wanted me to have that song in the film. The music supervisor on the film [Mike Flicker], mentioned the Britney Spears track and I was like, “Oh, that’s so funny. I had won Say What Karaoke.” I was working at MTV and someone dropped out of participating. I was hosting something else up there and they were like, “Oh my god, would you consider getting into this and doing a Britney song?”
I was like, “Yeah, sure. Do you have a crazy outfit?” So, I put on a wig and some sparkly spandex thing. I was like, “Hey, check it out. If you want, I can do a version like this.” Then I was like, “Hey, Dweezil, do you want to do this track?” That’s really how it came about.
I just watched the Miami Vice episode with your father in it last night.
The worst stunt double of all time was him jumping in the water. The cut is just so bad. It’s not my favorite performance of his. I don’t know if he was really comfortable in those situations, or, maybe he was. I know he wasn’t winning a Daytime Emmy or Nighttime Emmy for that performance.
How do you choose which of your father’s music comes out?
We listen to the fan base and have internal conversations and try to think about, “What period haven’t we explored?” Because we’re always uncovering new things, so there might be, “Oh, look, we just found this track on this record or on these tapes.” It’s a pretty natural, holistic, organic way of picking to be honest. We’re always listening for new things and listening to the fan base.
Do you have a favorite performance or favorite period of your father’s?
The ’70s, really. I was born in ’74, so that music and that time and that band I was always around. That’s my earliest music that was being played for me. I was raised on that. I’m just partial to the rocking ’70s.
We know a lot of things that Frank enjoyed just from his songs. We know that he likes B-movies because of “Cheepnis”. What are some of the things he enjoyed which might come as a surprise?
He loved animation. We had talked about that. Maybe that will surprise some people. We made recently this beer called “Why Does It Hurt When IPA” where we gave all the proceeds to the music community in need. So, people will ask, “But Frank didn’t drink.” I think people would be surprised to know that he did enjoy beers. He had his favorite ones. He didn’t have a beer or a glass of wine every day, but certainly there were occasions where he would.
He liked Peter Jackson’s movies a lot. He loved Terry Gilliam, though. His favorite is Time Bandits. Brazil might be one of his all-time favorite movies. That was a must watch, right up there with The Brainiac which is not directed by Terry Gilliam. That was a Mexican horror film that was played a lot in our house.
I read that you and your father talked about holograms before they were even a thing. Can you tell me how that conversation brought you into the work with Eyellusion?
Frank talked about it even in his book The Real Frank Zappa Book. He wanted to start his own hologram business and started in earnest developing, trying to launch his business. As a kid, just talking to me about his thoughts and the benefits and getting something like that going.
One aspect was, “Hey, there’s going to be a show that’s out there touring of the music with these holograms, but I’m here in LA and I don’t have to travel.” There’s that. Or the show could go out and he could be home working. That was like, “Whoa!” It felt like the holodeck on Star Trek in what he was describing and how far he was going.
He was even talking about being able to broadcast in the atmosphere. Having some kind of projection system that he was trying to figure out the specifications of that with some people from, I guess, military friends on my mom’s side of the family. Lots of forward-thinking concepts that people at the time must have imagined, “That’s so far out.” Then fast forward to today with displays and with different software and machinery and all of it really became a possibility.
I was really excited and inspired to try to work on something that Frank really wanted to have happen. I have lots of audio of him talking about, singing about holograms, making references to holograms. He loved animation. It was really fun to put that show together.
ZAPPA is available on on-demand platforms in the U.S. and the UK at Altitude.film.