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In addition to being a GRAMMY award-winning guitarist and the oldest son of the legendary Frank Zappa, Dweezil Zappa is also a phenomenally creative songwriter, engineer, and producer. Perhaps best known for his work with Zappa On Zappa, where he pays tribute to his father's musical legacy alongside other world-class musicians, Dweezil has also worked with a number of artists behind the scenes in the studio.
Back in 2022, we took a trip out to Los Angeles to visit Dweezil's Hikari Studios for issue 004 of PLAYBACK Magazine. While we were there, we gave Dweezil the 20 questions treatment. Read on to learn more about his go-to gear, his approach to writing and recording, and a few of his favorite albums.
1. What’s your philosophy on producing music?
I think it’s important to start with a clear idea of the goals for the music and sound. I also think the artist should be captured making their most distinctive sound. There are a few amazing producers that have their own sound and they apply it to the artists they work with in the same way that people use plug-ins. There’s a time and place for that, but I prefer to let the music speak for itself and let the artist be authentic. There will certainly be times where the role of the producer is to shape the arrangement of the song and the sonic landscape, but there should be a target in mind from the beginning. It can be broad at first and then be fine-tuned, but it is easier to get to the target with a road map.
I’m always interested in taking detours and doing explorations to find unique sounds. I also like doing exercises to change my thought patterns. Sometimes it’s fun to draw a graph on a piece of paper and put a timeline underneath it. The energy is represented by the graph at certain points on the timeline. From there, the song needs to be written and arranged to meet the visual cues on the graph—it’s almost like scoring a movie. Unusual things happen when you compose music that way. At the end of the day, it’s all about the creative process. Whatever makes it more fun and inspirational is what I want to do.
2. What’s your favorite part of the creative process?
The “lightning in a bottle moment.” I love the first playback of a great performance or the discovery of a mistake that becomes an integral part of the song. Happy accidents, free sounds and spontaneous composition all wrapped up in air moving the speakers—that same concept can be applied to the writing process as well. When exploration and discovery crash into each other, that’s when genius emerges.
3. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
I typically get up early, around 5:30. I try to exercise and walk the dogs before eight AM so that I can be ready to work in the studio from nine to five, but I often work longer than that when I’m stuck into creative endeavors. Finding a balance between home life and studio life is always a challenge!
4. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?
I’ve never had a particular style. I have a wide range of interests, so I’m more apt to do explorations. Now that I have my own studio and have gathered a wealth of life experience and knowledge about gear, I’m able to move forward to a new creative process based on educated preferences. I would say I’m currently in a state of metamorphosis.
5. What’s something you’d like to learn more about when it comes to making music?
I’m always keen to learn more about all aspects of music and recording. If I had to choose a topic, I would say that I‘d like to learn more about top-line melody composition and the specific chord progressions that result in the strongest connection for the listener. I also love when song lyrics are fit into the music so that it feels like you have to wait for the punctuation until the next bar. Aimee Mann has always been great at writing in that way. I’d love to know more about the thought process behind that style of songwriting.
6. What made you choose the hybrid setup that you have?
Flexibility. I wanted to have access to the best of the analog and in-the-box worlds. It’s all about having control of the color palette with total recall.
7. Which mics do you use most often?
Telefunken U-48s, AEA 44s, R-88s, Mojave MA-37s, Beyer 160s, AKG C-24s and the Scope Labs Periscope.
8. Do you have any favorite outboard gear or plugins for tracking and/or mixing?
I have too many favorites! I love different categories of compression. I tend to like Vari-Mu compression the most, but I also lean heavily on my Urei 1178. I recently did a shootout between my RCA BA-6A and my Locomotive 14B and discovered some very cool things about both when it comes to harmonic distortion. I’m going to go even deeper down that rabbit hole because the gluey character and distortion is so much fun!
9. What’s the least expensive piece of gear you’ve ever used on a record?
I’m not sure, actually. If I look around the control room right now, I would say it’s the Shure FP-42 mixer. There are a lot of cool inexpensive things out there in the world of music and recording!
10. Imagine a world where hybrid studios don't exist. If you had to choose in-the-box or completely analog, which would you choose and why?
I would say in-the-box. There are so many more flexible options for overall production inside the DAW, and the tools keep improving year after year.
11. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session?
I tuned a guitar so that the open strings played a random chord that I had no familiarity with, then decided I would press record and compose something on the spot. Whatever came out would be the song. I ended up doing some overdubs to it and released it on my album Automatic. It’s called “Secret Hedges” because it reminded me of my friend Michael Hedges.
12. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making music?
I used to like to play golf but I haven’t played at all for years. These days, my downtime consists of family time and playing training games with my rescue dogs.
13. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
I’m partial to my dad’s book “The Real Frank Zappa Book.” I like biographies a lot; I’ve read about six to eight over the last year.
14. What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?
That’s tough! I guess I would choose two that left an indelible mark on me in my formative years. I love my dad’s album Apostrophe(‘) and Van Halen’s Fair Warning. I listen to all kinds of music and there are a million different reasons why I might like certain albums, whether it’s the sound of the record or the songs themselves, but those two albums sunk in very deep.
15. Which recording session do you wish you could have been a fly on the wall for?
Van Halen’s “Push Comes To Shove.” That is their weirdest song and it has the best solo Edward Van Halen ever played. I have a lot of questions about that song!
16. What’s one piece of gear you can’t live without?
I’m a guitar player, so I would have to say a Gibson SG.
17. What new music have you been listening to lately?
I haven’t heard a lot of new music lately. I’ve been doing a lot of reverse engineering of sounds, so I’ve been listening to classic records from The Who, The Beatles, AC/DC and some Aretha Franklin and Motown stuff. As far as newer artists, I really like St. Vincent. I’d love to work with her, especially in Atmos.
18. Who's someone you look to as a constant source of inspiration, whether on a personal or professional level?
My dad, of course! In the world of sound, there are guys who have made many of the classic sounds, like Geoff Emerick, Glynn and Andy Johns, Alan Parsons and Rick Hall. I’m inspired by all that stuff, but you can’t count out Eddie Kramer, Donn Landee, Steve Albini and Rob Schnapf either.
19. When you're feeling inspired, what’s the first thing you do to get your ideas down?
It used to be my phone. Sometimes it still is, but mostly now it’s my studio. It’s finally easy to just pop in and start recording.
20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or artists?
These days it’s important to have a broader skill set. So many people are now learning video production along with audio production. Artists have to become auteurs. They need to be the sole author and architect of their creative vision and know how to use the right tools to achieve the results they are aiming for. If they can’t do it themselves, then they need a team of people who can. Find a way to add value and be part of that team.
For aspiring artists and engineer-producers, it’s important to know that these things go hand in hand. If you’re able to surround yourself with like-minded people—and people who are even more skilled than you—you will be able to raise the bar for yourself and expedite your success. Beyond that, having the right attitude devoid of ego-posturing, and the willingness to focus on your role (no matter what it is) will make you much more desirable to work with.