Since 2006, the music of the late, legendary Frank Zappa has been alive and well in the repertoire of Zappa Plays Zappa, a band led by Frank’s son Dweezil. Until recently, Joe Travers had the job of handling the ludicrously demanding work of Zappa’s long line of gifted drummers. Meet the latest guy to take the challenge.
In February 2013, Zappa Plays Zappa tour manager Pete Jones called Ryan Brown to tell him that Dweezil Zappa needed a drummer. Brown had met Jones in 1999, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, and the two had bonded over their mutual affection for the groundbreaking music of Dweezil’s father, Frank Zappa. When Zappa Plays Zappa was launched in 2006 and Jones became the band’s tour manager, Brown said that he’d love to get involved if the drum seat became available. “I never thought in a million years that it would open up,” the drummer recalls.
And then it did. Brown, who does sessions in Los Angeles, plays in a band called Black Belt Karate, and teaches at Musicians Institute, asked, “What do I need to do?” Jones told Brown to immediately send video of himself playing two particularly difficult Zappa tunes.
Brown pulled aside a student at MI who frequently helped classmates put together YouTube videos. In early March 2013, within five days of hearing from Jones, Brown sent video of himself playing along with “Inca Roads,” from One Size Fits All, and the arrangement of the infamous drummer-challenging piece “The Black Page” that appears on Make a Jazz Noise Here. Two days later, Dweezil called and, after a lengthy conversation about Frank’s music and the drummers who performed it, invited Brown to audition for his band, saying he’d send a list of songs to learn.
Two and a half weeks later, just days before his scheduled audition, Brown emailed Dweezil to ask about the song list, which he hadn’t received (by design, he assumes). Dweezil sent him ten songs, and forty-eight hours later, after essentially living and practicing for the audition at MI, Brown was playing with Dweezil and bandmates Scheila Gonzalez and Kurt Morgan. “It was intense,” Ryan recalls. “Plus I hadn’t slept very much at all.”
Dweezil emailed Brown the next day to invite him to a callback, and to tell him to add “City of Tiny Lights” to the list of audition songs; he wanted to hear Brown handle a tune that Terry Bozzio had played on. All went well, and Brown got the gig, leading up to twenty-six eight-hour rehearsals and a tour during which the band would celebrate and perform the 1974 album Roxy & Elsewhere, along with other tunes.
Just the mention of attempting to tackle Frank Zappa’s music is enough to perk up drummers’ ears. MD wanted to find out what kinds of experiences prepared Brown for such a trying endeavor.
MD: From your perspective, what is required of a drummer to play Frank Zappa’s music?
Ryan: The first thing that comes to mind is that you have to have a knowledge of all styles of music, because, as you know, so much of Frank’s catalog weaves between all these different styles constantly. There are orchestral parts, going into jazz, going into rock, going into different time signatures, different feels…. So I think the biggest thing is knowing many, many styles of music and being able to navigate all the time signatures.
MD: To what degree do you have to channel the different drummers who played with Frank?
Ryan: That’s the word I’ve been using too: channeling. I’m totally trying to channel those guys. And I feel almost like I’m kind of dialing back and forth between Bozzio, Vinnie [Colaiuta], Ralph [Humphrey], Chester [Thompson], and Chad Wackerman—because as a fan, if I were going to go see the band, I would want to hear it like that, or as close to that as possible.
MD: How much of your own style and attitude are you able to deliver while also executing all these parts?
Ryan: The solo sections of tunes is when I get to do that—listening very intently to what Dweezil is doing and reacting rhythmically to what he’s playing and just playing off him. On the heads, I try to stick to what’s on the record.
MD: Did the repertoire dictate the equipment you brought out on the road?
Ryan: Yes, definitely. The kit I have is the minimal amount of stuff that I need to pull off everything, which is funny, because for years I’ve been a four-piece guy.
MD: How did you decide what gear was going to be required?
Ryan: The first thing I did was look at Joe Travers’ setup. Then I got the list of tunes and started learning them. So, for starters, the fill on “More Trouble Every Day,” on the Roxy record, and the fills on “Florentine Pogen,” those two in particular you have to have five toms to be able to play them just like the record. And then for “The Black Page” and stuff that’s on Joe’s Garage, I definitely had to have the Rototoms. [Bongos are actually notated in the “Black Page” part.] And then I have a Roland sampling pad for all the cowbell stuff, because there’s lots of cowbell on the Roxy record. We sampled a bunch of different cowbells, and I use those in lieu of actual cowbells. As far as cymbals go, I have a lot of bells, splashes, Chinas….
MD: You mentioned that you’ve been a huge Zappa fan since you were young. Which of his drummers had the most influence on you?
Ryan: The way I got into the whole thing was because of Modern Drummer. I started playing drums when I was eleven. I started buying Modern Drummer magazines, and in every issue there was some mention of Frank Zappa, in conjunction with Bozzio, Vinnie, or Chad. And I just remember for months going, “Man, who is this Frank Zappa guy? I should probably check this out.” So then I bought Zappa in New York, with Bozzio. The first song on that is “Titties & Beer,” and I was not really prepared for that at that point in time. So I listened to it maybe once and kind of shelved it for a few months.
And then, every month in Modern Drummer, still, there was some mention of Frank. I was like, “Wow, maybe I need to give this another shot, because there are so many records.” So I went back and just randomly bought Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, and when I put that on, it was over. I was just like, “I get it.” And then I went back and listened to Zappa in New York, and I was like, “I’m on board now. All right, how many lawns can I mow so I can make enough money to buy all these records?”
MD: Beyond Zappa’s music, who are some of the other players who have influenced you?
Ryan: I studied with Kenny Aronoff for four years. I went to Indiana University and studied with him and got a degree in jazz studies with an emphasis on percussion. It was a great mix of doing orchestral stuff every day, jazz every day, and rock stuff with Kenny.
MD: Who were you studying the orchestral stuff with?
Ryan: Tom Stubbs from the St. Louis Symphony would fly in to Indiana once a week for a couple of the years that I was there. I learned a lot from Tom and from Wilber England. And then I was in all the jazz bands, took all of David Baker’s classes, Dominic Spera’s classes. So I got this great mix of orchestral, jazz, and rock for four years there, nonstop, which, looking back on it, was the perfect preparation for what I’m doing with Zappa Plays Zappa.
MD: Who are some of the other players who come to mind?
Ryan: I’m a huge Rush fan, so definitely Neil Peart. I’m also a huge King Crimson fan, so Bill Bruford, Pat Mastelotto…. I love XTC—Dave Mattacks, who played on Nonsuch, is one of my favorite drummers, and Prairie Prince, who played on Skylarking, I love him. I’m way into Primus. Living Colour—Will Calhoun was probably my earliest huge inspiration. My first three huge inspirational guys were Gregg Bissonette, Will Calhoun, and Dennis Chambers.
MD: What are some of the main principles you talk about with students at Musicians Institute?
Ryan: The biggest thing that I try to teach there is how to learn songs, because there are always guys who can play but don’t know song form. And that’s what it’s all about. I’ve done a ton of session stuff, and I try to teach students how to pay attention to song form and how to learn songs fast, and I put them in fake session situations where I’m the producer. I’ll say, “Okay, here’s this tune. You get to listen to it one time, and then you have to track it.” And I have a whole system of how to quickly chart stuff out. I try to prep them for that, which, for me, is the real world.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
With Zappa Plays Zappa, Brown plays a DW Collector’s series maple drumset in champagne sparkle FinishPly. It includes a 22″ bass drum; 10″, 12″, and 13″ F.A.S.T.-size toms; 16″ and 18″ F.A.S.T.-size floor toms; and a 5×14 snare in red over laser blue lacquer finish. His setup also includes 6″, 8″, and 10″ Remo Rototoms and a Roland SPD-S sampling pad.
Ryan uses Sabian cymbals, including a pair of 14″ hi-hats with an HHX Legacy top and an HHX Evolution bottom, an 18″ HHX X-treme crash, a 7″ HH Radia cup chime, an 8″ AAX splash, an 18″ HHX Stage crash, a 20″ HHX Stage ride, an 18″ Paragon crash, a 19″ Paragon Chinese, and a 20″ Paragon Chinese with a 12″ Vault Radia inside.
Brown uses DW hardware, including DW 9000 hi-hat and double bass pedals. He plays Remo heads, including Clear Pinstripe tom and Rototom batters, Clear Ambassador tom bottoms, a Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter, and a Coated Controlled Sound snare batter with a black dot underneath. He uses Vater 5B wood-tip sticks.
Don’t You Ever Drop That Thing?
Ryan Brown explains his unique interpretation of a classic Zappa moment.
We played the Roxy & Elsewhere record every night on tour, and one of the songs is “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” On the record, in the middle of the tune, Frank calls out, “Ladies and gentlemen, watch Ruth….” The band stops, and Ruth Underwood does this awesome little marimba solo. So we played this tune every night for eighty-six shows, and every night Dweezil would call on someone in the band to do something fun and cool. We never knew who he would call, and we all started doing crazy stuff. One night he called on me, and I started juggling two tennis balls with my right hand and played [the beat to Led Zeppelin’s] “When the Levee Breaks” with my left hand and bass drum. There was a photographer that just happened to get a bunch of great pics of that moment. It only happened one time. Other fun things that happened during this section include our bassist shooting his bass with a Nerf gun and our keyboardist playing ragtime piano with gloves on. It was always fun—we never knew what was going to happen!