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But, Dweez, What Do You Really Think? : Frank Zappa's Son, Who Plays the Coach House Saturday, Inherited Dad's Outspokenness

March 29, 1991|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Remember the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue," in which a fellow saddles his son with an unusual name in the hope that it will make him to grow up to be his own man?

Well, it works.

Dweezil Zappa, explaining how his parents prepared him to avoid school-age pressures to conform, says, "Just having a name like Dweezil was a good start. Many people hear the name and think, 'Man it must suck to grow up with that.' But you definitely end up having your own identity because you're already set apart from everybody else. People go, 'I can't believe that's your name,' or think, 'What an idiot.' So there's 10 guys named Mike and 50 guys named David and a million Joes in your class, and they all follow the same thing, where everybody likes the same music, buys the same clothes, the same notebooks and pencils. And you go your own way."

For Zappa that entailed leaving high school at 15 (with his parents' blessing) to pursue a life in music. Since embarking on that musical career in the mid-1980s, he also has taken pains to prove that he's his own man (or teen, as the case was then), not just someone cashing in on the name of his famous dad, Frank Zappa.

His metal-based music reveals far more influence from Edward Van Halen than anything in the elder Zappa's catalogue. He got signed to a major label without his pop pulling any strings in the industry. A handy thing, too, considering his dad spent much of his career sawing on those strings, savaging and lampooning the inanities and vacuity of the entertainment business. For several years, Frank Zappa has elected to release his albums on his own independent label, Barking Pumpkin.

Like father, like son, the saying goes, and Dweezil is turning out at least to have inherited a fearless mouth from his dad. His new album, "Confessions," will be coming out April 9 on Barking Pumpkin as well, as the 21-year-old Zappa is unreservedly fed up with the major labels.

Speaking by phone from a Hollywood studio during a break in rehearsals Monday, Zappa said it wasn't originally his idea to release "Confessions" as an independent.

"I was kind of forced into it," he said, "I financed the record myself and produced it myself along with (young guitar whiz) Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme. I wrote all the songs, except for the cover tunes, and \o7 every\f7 major label turned it down. I just said, 'Well (forget) these guys, I'll do it myself.'

"I think that generally the people who are responsible for bringing new acts into record companies are so afraid of losing their jobs that they only want to bring in acts that resemble others that already bring in money. It's a money-making proposition only. On very few occasions do bands get signed on musical merit or talent, where someone says, 'I just like this--let's put it out.' It's a sad day when Vanilla Ice gets more attention than good musicians who actually play instruments and music, doing things that are much more creative."

He has a good chunk of his own money riding on the new album--money earned from starring in a TV series he detested (more on that shortly)--and he expects to have a much harder time getting it heard without a label's promotional backing and tour support. He plans to offset that by hard touring--including a stop Saturday at the Coach House--which can be quite a financial risk without that tour support.

Also, unlike the shared partnership most young groups are founded on, Zappa is a bandleader.

"In this case, I'm the boss who hires everybody," he said. "At 21, I've got myself into such a high-stress environment, I'm worried about my hair falling out and my gums receding."

While being in charge of his career is a daunting prospect, he does see some advantages.

"Going out in this total maverick fashion, if I do succeed, there will be much more satisfaction to it," he said. "It's a neat challenge. And I'm much better off doing this now than later, because if we do succeed, then I can continue to do whatever the hell I want to do instead of having a bunch of idiot losers guide my career without them having the faintest notion of anything."

"Confessions" is a set of primarily melodic metal, fleshed out with rich arrangements and vocal harmonies. Those, Zappa said, were largely the responsibility of co-producer Bettencourt, whose band Extreme is strong on the same qualities. Bettencourt also spells Zappa on some of the album's guitar solos.

Despite the early boost he got in the form of a unique name, Zappa has had his own image problems, fueled by his exposure on MTV and in the CBS series "Normal Life" and by gossipy reports romantically linking him with various celebrities.

"I think people generally know my name, but they don't know what I do," he said. "They know me more as a stupid kind of personality they saw on MTV or from some lame untrue article in People magazine or something. . . .

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