In the early ’70s, Frank Zappa turned his Los Angeles rehearsal space into a once-in-a-lifetime concert venue, busting out live renditions of his beloved, whimsical compositions that would never be heard by anyone who wasn’t in that room. 44 years later, that evening’s audio is being used as the groundwork for a new type of Zappa experience: a hologram tour produced by none other than his son, Ahmet Zappa.
Working alongside Jeff Pezzuti, CEO of hologram production company Eyellusion and a longtime Westchester resident, Zappa is bringing his father’s music to life through The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa tour, including longtime Zappa players Ray White, Mike Keneally, Scott Thunes, Robert Martin, and Ed Mann with Joe Travers. Along the way, legendary musicians Steve Vai, Ian Underwood, Lady Bianca, Napoleon Murphy Brock, and Arthur Barrow will join the production.
Debuting at Port Chester’s The Capitol Theatre on April 19, the tour will hit nine U.S. stops, followed by seven in Europe, featuring surreal imagery crafted from the lore and subject matter of many of Frank Zappa’s songs, as well as imagery and art styles from classic album artwork. Below, we catch up with (the younger) Zappa and Pezzuti to talk the tour’s details, and get the inside scoop on how a Frank Zappa hologram is brought to life.
Can you tell me about the genesis of this tour and the underlying idea a little bit?
Ahmet: It started really with my father wanting to have something to do with holographic content. He wrote about it in his book The Real Frank Zappa, chapter 18.
He was always pushing the edge of what you can do with the latest and greatest pieces of technology. So conversations I had with him as a kid really kind of inspired me throughout my life. Specifically, his notions around holography and the business he wanted to start; he thought it would be cool if he could have a tour of himself, a holographic tour, as one example, where you can have one tour happen around the world. That means you have all the right equipment that people could see it.
He loved the idea of a hologram going out on the road while he’s home, working on new music. But, more specifically, you could design shows with content and do things, because anything’s possible when you start to kind of play around with infinite space, with projection, right?
Those were really some of the topics that inspired me as a kid. For me, I feel like I’m accomplishing something that my father started. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I’m finishing something that he started, you know?
I’ve been working really hard on the visuals and trying to make a show that I think honors his music, his sense of humor. Just really trying to lean into my own experiences with him and celebrate topics and visuals and art styles that I know that he would have liked and to pull it all together in a show for the fans.
We really want to build an experience. It’s not just what we’re projecting holographically, per se, it’s all the other media around it and the lights and the band, and all of it kind of comes together to make this new kind of a thing, and I’m really proud of that. It’s a love letter to my dad and love letters to the fans.
We want to try to create something that even if you weren’t a Zappa fan, you could go have a really good time. You know, I do think that we were doing the digital visual equivalent of like, “what the fuck is happening right now?” Because you go on this wild ride and every song has a different visual approach and different things happen and the band is so great. The back of your brain is going to literally melt into your skull, if you watch this show.
With other holograms shows it seems like fans of the artists feel like it’s a form of exploitation. How have Zappa fans reacted to this idea so far? It seems overall positive.
Ahmet: Well, I don’t know it’s all been positive, and that’s to be expected with any kind of situation. We work closely with all of our partners, the estates, and all of that. We’re just huge music fans trying to do things creatively in celebration of the artists. But people will feel one way or the other and I think it’s polarizing, in that there hasn’t really been so many [hologram] experiences that have lived up to the expectation in someone’s mind. Right?
But again, with the fan base, there are people that are like, “Yeah, but, he never would have done that.” Well, okay, how about take my word for it? ‘Cause I had the conversation with him.
The first time I saw [hologram] Frank, I’m like, “Oh my God, my dad’s back.” And I got super teary-eyed.
People that miss Ronnie James Dio having these emotional reactions to that tour we just had. You get to see him and hear his voice. And that connection is made again. It’s a communal experience, a shared experience with people, and that’s super important and that’s why we’re doing this. For people to come to a show and be able to feel that energy, interact with one another in celebration of people that you know that passed away.
I can dig that point of view.
Ahmet: I like to view it as, well, he’s become cosmic energy. He’s immortal now. And he’s very busy on this cosmic tour of the galaxy. And we’re so lucky that he’s able to kind of send his energy, his light to the stage, you know, for this short period of time. That really has been the psychology in my mind, which makes me emotional.
Why debut here at the Capitol Theater?
Jeff Pezzuti: It’s a historic place, [Zappa] has actually played there before, and also Peter Shapiro was a fan of what we were doing and he wanted the first show so that’s how it ended up there.
Ahmet: Tying in the history of Frank, having played the Capitol Theatre, that’s been pretty cool. I like the idea of Frank coming home to some of these places and I’ve got to re-meet some of these some people I’ve met when I was like seven, people that have these really fond memories of Frank and booked him in the theater, so I’m having that emotional roller coaster and I’m loving every minute of it, of reconnecting with people that love Frank and worked with him.
Jeff: I think what’s great about the show, too, is the fact that it’s not just for Zappa fans. The message is that it’s a great visual experience, it’s got great music and it’s the way to pass this legacy of incredible music down so people understand what Frank Zappa was about.
I’m really loving the emotional attachment you guys have to this, it adds a whole new dimension to how beautiful I think it’s going to be. I think anybody who goes will probably become a Zappa fan afterwards.
Ahmet: I believe in his message and what he says and the comedy and his music — and I am, of course, super biased. I worship my dad. It’s not just even about the music. It’s about what a trailblazer he was, and the sense of humor that he had and how political he was, you know, all of these things. I don’t want that being lost.
So that’s one of the things that I hope happens. Again, you don’t have to be a fan of Frank but you will have a really good experience, I think, and appreciation for what he did.
Another dimension of his music was his live improvisation during sets. How can this be incorporated into a hologram set?
Ahmet: Yeah, there’s a lot of those kinds of moments. And that’s up to the band. Everyone’s on the same wavelength, so if the guys are up to performing something new with Frank, we can support that with pretty radical visuals. And that’s how the show can evolve in an in a kind of natural way. So they can improv and play their solos and interact with one another.
Can we get into the visuals a little bit? Tell us a little about what we can expect to see.
Ahmet: It was really about anthropomorphizing the songs. It’s about bringing them to life. And in some cases, it’s, you know, like with Montana, right? It’s a funny song about my dad singing about becoming a dental floss tycoon.
One of the challenges was, can we pull off having this amazing song told through the lens of a single strand of dental floss? And so, that was my obsessed goal: How do we have this really elegant storytelling device?
Because you can imagine that, but then when it comes to the practicality of what really needs to happen to keep you entertained. These are creative choices that have to go into building the show. So you roll up your sleeves and you plot out, you gotta storyboard out every single song. Then you go look through the ebb and flow, the ups and downs, the balance of the show. What’s the emotional journey you want to take people on? We built it so that things can come in and out of the show.
We can vary the show so that we can keep delighting new fans and old fans. We want people to be able to experience the show a couple of times.
Jeff: I’m using the phrase visual smorgasbord. And actually, I think it’s an accurate phrase. Cause it’s literally a feast for the eyes, with great music happening. It’s like literally the combination of everything we love, as music fans. And I see from a company standpoint, we’re trying to reset the bar or set the bar, with where we think live music is going to go in the future.
I don’t want to spoil anything for the show, but can you give us a small taste of the setlist we can expect?
Ahmet: I mean, it changes so I actually I don’t know that I can actually tell you. But, let me tell you a little bit of the of where the musical content came from.
In the early ’70s my dad used his rehearsal facility to shoot what we internally call the Premore shoots. It really is during what I would say is one of the favorite periods of my dad. So I kind of leaned into the early ’70s and that vibe, so this this was right after he performed at the Roxy, and part of the reason why they shot the show is because they lost sync to the to the tape at the Roxy Show. That’s why the movie never came out, which was a big disappointment, but the record came out and people love that record.
I love that period of time. This footage kind of is like my sweet spot of like, what I call my “super rock star dad version,” you know, with long hair and all of that. That was the initial inspiration for even how Frank looks on stage. So, [the songs are] fan favorites, but also recordings no one’s ever heard before. It’s isolated vocals and guitar playing. There’s going to be new solos and new vocal performances from Frank with songs that people will recognize, which I think is important. And then we’re also going to world premiere pieces of music Frank wrote that are being performed for the first time. Live on stage.
What did you guys learn from the Ronnie James Dio tour that changed how you guys took on Zappa?
Ahmet: Oh so much, I mean, but the great thing about Dio tour was it accomplished everything it was supposed to do, which was prove we could tour it, like the first company to ever tour something like this with a live band.
That led us to our next level of extra funding and everything, just based on that premise, because people didn’t believe that it could tour. But we accomplished all that, we got the ROI based on the actual 11th day to Europe.
We learned the fans respond to a hologram, which was super key to us. Because if you have a call and response segment, and there’s no responding, there’s no energy. But we learned that if a hologram of an artist that people love asked you to sing the song and you sing it back to them, that’s a win. And that was like literally what we saw firsthand.
And one thing we did want to fix if you look at the content was Ronnie, because of the stage, Ronnie was slightly in the rear of the stage and on a pedestal like a little higher.
Yes, I noticed that in some videos.
Ahmet: Right. So what we did was we re-engineered that. So now Ronnie and the band, and Frank and the band, are all on the same plane.
We’re super proud of every we’ve done and, and they’re all building blocks for where we’re going. I can’t underscore how much we learned. And then we’re going to keep evolving things.