Annie Lesser

The Zappa Band Has Perfected Its Eccentricities

An amalgamation of sorts, The Zappa Band combines classic, musical history with spur-of-the-moment whimsy for an experience worth at least two hours of your time.

As an eclectic, eccentric, and prolific composer/bandleader/singer/guitarist, Frank Zappa was a true artist in every sense of the word. His myriad of albums consisted of songs featuring carefully constructed music and characters. He used sardonic humor as well as pointed, direct missives railing against the government, religion, censorship, and other highly-held institutions. The mesmerizing turns of rock, jazz, experimental, and avant garde music incorporated the use of brass, sound effects, and character interludes to craft sonic and lyrical excellence. 

Zappa was more than just a musician known for protest songs and numbers that savaged modern society. He became part of the cultural milieu through musically and lyrically adventurous performances – a Zappa show was a complete musical and theatrical performance.

The man was taken from us way too early – Zappa died of prostate cancer at age 52 in 1993. As people are want to say after a musician dies, ‘he/she left a legacy in their music.’ That, of course, is true of Zappa. But his music, and especially the Zappa live experience, deserves to be ongoing  rather than just preserved.

Enter The Zappa Band. The group features an alumnus of devoted Zappa band members that appeared on albums and tours throughout the years. They first came together for the Bizarre World of Frank Zappa tour, conceived by Ahmet Zappa, son of Frank and official trustee of the Zappa family trust. After the Bizarre World tour, the band members continued to play on and were christened The Zappa Band by Ahmet Zappa.

Sidelined by the pandemic, The Zappa Band toured for the first time last year, opening for King Crimson. Now they’re on their first headlining tour, which comes to Sony Hall on June 16 (as part of Blue Note Jazz Festival) and the Tarrytown Music Hall in on June 17. 

We recently had the chance to chat with Zappa Band guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Mike Keneally, who performed on several live albums including Zappa ’88, which would turn out to be the last Zappa American concert.

How and when did The Zappa Band come about? 

It’s interesting. Joe Travers, who is the drummer and also is the drummer in my band, Beer for Dolphins, is also the vaultmeister for the Zappas, which means when he’s not drumming he’s down in Frank’s tape vault finding unreleased music to put on these archival box sets that have been coming out lately. 

I live in San Diego but whenever I went up to LA I would stay at Joe’s place and we were talking for years about how much we’d like to put a band together with Scott Thunes, the bass player, and some other guys, and play some Zappa tunes. And then Ahmet conceived this tour called The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa, which went out in 2019. It became known as the hologram tour but there was a lot more to it beyond the hologram aspect. It was actually very layered, a very intense musical-visual experience all the way around. It was an amazing tour and the people who came out to see it were generally moved by it. It was also very complex and expensive and could only be played on certain sized stages to support all the staging and the screens and the craziness. The lineup on that tour became The Zappa Band.

We just wanted to keep playing and we started booking gigs at The Baked Potato, which is a jazz club in Los Angeles. Ahmet got it immediately that the band had an energy and it was a valid thing beyond the concept of the Bizarre World tour. Ahmet named us. He said, “You are The Zappa Band, you are the one band that gets the official thumbs up from the Zappa organization.” We started getting ready to go out and play and then the pandemic hit. One of the first bands to tour the U.S. in 20201 was King Crimson and we got the opening slot for about a month of that tour. 

Was the King Crimson tour a chance for the band to fine-tune? Was it a proving ground that you could do this on the road on a consistent basis?

We were jazzed about it. It got us road-ready and it sort of proved to us that we could do a tour, because up until then we had only done isolated shows primarily in LA to a partisan crowd. To play for King Crimson’s audience… there’s crossover, there are some Zappa fans, but no guarantees that the audience would take to us. People lost their minds, they really loved it. Members of King Crimson started sitting in with us.

It forged relationships, which was really wonderful. The only thing is that we had to keep it to 45 minutes to the second every night. That made us become an incredibly well-oiled machine but at the same time aware that playing for 45 minutes, the same set every night, is not exactly the full Zappa ethos. At a Zappa show you’re supposed to have no idea what’s going to happen. Frank liked random events, he liked improv, he liked spontaneous occurrences onstage, and we weren’t able to do that to the full extent on the Crimson tour.

That’s what I’m really excited about headlining. It’s much more relaxed and we can create unique events every night. If people come out to see multiple shows, which a lot of Zappa fans like to do,  they can feel confident that they’re going to see something different if they see more than one show.

Frank Zappa released a seemingly infinite number of albums. How do you even begin to make a set list?

Well obviously his catalog is endless. At this point we know about three hours’ worth of stuff that we can confidently stand and deliver. We play for two hours and we know three hours’ worth of stuff.  A lot of the choosing of which songs to play for a show is just a response to that day’s energy. There are clearly the songs you have to play today. Nobody knows why but this day requires this music. 

Frank Zappa constantly changed arrangements of his songs. How did you decide which versions to go by?

You have to be very well prepared not just to play the songs but to play them accurately because they’re hard, but you have to discuss each song. A song may have been played on eight different tours, and each arrangement on each tour is radically different. We have to get very specific about what arrangement we’re doing for the song. We’ve Frankensteined some of the arrangements, using different elements of each. 

Why is Frank Zappa’s music such a source of inspiration?

I think the music is a source of fascination for players because it’s such a challenge to execute it well. You have to give over large portions of your life to absorb and process it and make it a part of you. That was the thing that was most exciting joining the band after having been a hardcore fan for years, and just having immersed myself in the whole world of that music. It was really important to do well for Frank.

 I was very young when I joined he band and just a puppy and was eager to please. Contrary to belief, he was not a tyrant, if you provided what he was paying you to do, which was to play accurate renditions of his songs. That’s all he wanted and that seemed like a reasonable request of the guy who was signing our checks, and it was my please to do that because I loved the music so much. 

He was our boss and the audience was Frank’s boss. The fact that I would have to sometimes rehearse one passage for an hour-and-a-half straight to convince my fingers to be able to do it was a pleasure. He enjoyed being the engine of that sort of transformation in a musician. That discipline has impacted my music and my life in so many different ways. From the perspective of the audience to see a group of musicians executing that stuff in lockstep at the same time has everyone cracking up because the songs are so funny and also the personalities in the band – people come to these shows expecting to have their minds blown and [we] take that very seriously. I brought that same expectation when I went to see Frank as a kid and I feel I have a responsibility to carry that forward. We all do.

How did you find Frank to be personally?

I found him to be extremely congenial when he was in a good mood. I was kind of in awe of him as I was a hero worshipper. But he never tried to present himself as anything other than a guy that wanted two things: one was to hear the music played correctly and the other was to have a good time. 

We rehearsed for four months for that tour in 1988.  I got along fantastically well with Frank. It was hard not to look at him as a mentor. He was very charismatic, very dynamic. We would go out to dinner during rehearsals and just relax and have a good time and talk. He was a great conversationalist and always intelligent, very well informed, and very interested in what was happening in other people’s lives. He was just an engaged and engaging person

How did you come to join his band?

I called him asking for an audition. I had no presence in the industry at all. I was playing Top 40 music in bars in San Diego. I was writing my own music that no one knew about and my experience playing Frank’s music was limited to my garage. I had called his hotline one day in 1988 and heard on the outgoing message that he was in rehearsal with a new band. That was big news because during the 1984 tour he said he was never going to tour again. My initial thought was, “This is cool, I get to see another tour.”

But then I thought this is likely to be my last shot to realize this dream I have of playing in Frank’s band, even though it’s the most left field possibility. I called up his office and a guy named Gerry Fialka picked up and I was very grateful that he took my call. He believed me when I said I taught myself a whole bunch of Zappa music and could play it on guitar and keyboards and sing, as well. I was familiar with all of Frank’s songs because I listened to them all the time and they took up permanent residence in my head. I said, “I don’t know if Frank’s looking for anybody, but if he is, I’m here.” The next day Frank called me back and said, “You can play all my music? I don’t believe you, get your ass up here and prove it.”

During the audition Frank was just throwing out song titles. He would name a song title and I would press the corresponding button on the jukebox in my head. He had a good time. At the end he just shook my hand and said, “Come back on Monday so the band can witness your particular splendor.” I remember that exact quote to this day. Then I had to pass the band audition which in some ways was more difficult than the Frank audition. After a respectable amount of time I was in the group. The timing was insanely fortuitous and I’m pretty grateful every day that I chose to make that call when I did.