“Frank loved tongue sandwiches”: a conversation with Ahmet Zappa

frank zappa site takeover

Innovator, composer, visionary. Throughout his 30 year career, Frank Zappa recalibrated the face of music, and his legacy stands to prove it.

As he will tell you, Ahmet Zappa’s childhood was anything but ordinary. In a home where swearing was considered healthy self-expression, where meals revolved around their father’s nocturnal work schedule, and where children were treated with the respect of adults, Ahmet and his three siblings (Dweezil, Diva, and Moon Unit) would grow.

Now, thanks to the genius of Alex Winter, the doors of said home have been opened. From thousands of hours of unseen footage and tapes, once locked away in the family vault, comes this year’s biggest music documentary: ZAPPA, a never-before-seen look into the life of music’s mutineer.

We sat down with Ahmet to discuss the monumental new film.

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Frank Zappa, 1972

HAPPY: You must be so excited about this doco nearly coming out?

AHMET: I mean, I am! My dad had a great relationship with Australia and I have had such wonderful experiences there. I do fantasise about actually moving to Australia. I’ve spent a lot of time in Sydney. I love it, so I’m happy to speak with you. I love the name of the mag, the best! I’m thrilled. 

HAPPY: [Laughs]

AHMET: It’s been a real labour of love to do the doc and I feel blessed to have started the project with my mother even though she’s passed. The faith that she put in Alex Winter, who I think is an extraordinary filmmaker, and I think he really did an amazing job in this doc. I’m pleased but there were so many moments that we thought the doc might not ever come out. There were so many ups and downs, personal journeys, and setbacks, so it’s very rewarding to have people contact me and say that they really like the film which again, warms my heart but I’m totally biased. 

HAPPY: How long has the film been in production for?

AHMET: I think that it’s over five years because my mother was still alive, and she passed quite some time ago. It started where I got this phone call from Alex. We’d been friends and I think we met after the Lost Boys movie came out. I saw one of his first movies, this comedy that he made that I thought was wonderful. Over the years I was like “yeah, I remember him, he’s so creative and awesome!” We had this one meeting years ago that kind of put our friendship back in play because we like a lot of the same kinds of music and films. So, when I got this call from Alex saying how come there hasn’t been a definitive doc on Frank, I kind of gave him the backstory that “well, lots of people have tried and I can’t promise anything” but Gail, my mother, at that time she was Frank’s partner and she continued to run the family business. 

AHMET: I said, “look and I just tried to set it up in a personal way in her environment” and very rapidly, Alex had a very singular point of view. He knew the doc and what kind of doc they wanted to make and Gail, I made sure she had gotten a bunch of Alex’s films and she really loved him as a filmmaker and they really hit it off. I watched, kind of in shock, I was like, “wow okay she’s told everyone no, but this is going in the right direction.” She’s like, “if you want to do the movie that you want to make, let me show you something.” She took Alex into the vault and she said, “this is what you’re going to need to cull through.” We both understood at that moment in supporting Alex, it couldn’t be perceived as some propaganda doc or that we’re trying to tell a story that’s revisionist or something. We were really specific with him and said, “warts and all, the good and the bad, Alex please just tell the story that you want to tell.” 

Frank was against censorship in general and I think that was an unusual experience for Alex where those weren’t really our concerns. It was just, “please make an honest film and try to understand and weigh all the good and the bad, the ups and downs” and he did. If Gail was still here with us today, I think that she would’ve cried like I cried when I saw the first cut. She would have cried like I cried when I saw the final cut and she would’ve cried like I cried when the warm messages from people who have seen the doc started coming in because I think it’s a real victory. Then again, I’m biased, I’m his son and I want people to love the movie and to experience the movie. 

To me, he was just the guy that gave the best hugs and was really present when he was in the house because he was on tour a lot. My friends loved him and if you were in his inner circle, he was Mr Teddy Bear, to be honest. He called me bubba he would say, “hey bubba, if you’re going down the hill go get me a cherry pie.” He loved a tongue sandwich on a Kaiser roll with swiss cheese and Russian dressing, which makes me want to throw up but he couldn’t get enough of those kinds of sandwiches!

HAPPY: Hold up. Like, actual tongue?

AHMET: Yeah! He loved cow tongue sandwiches with swiss cheese, Russian dressing on a Kaiser roll!

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The Mothers of Invention tour, 1967

HAPPY: Absolutely not. No sir. 

AHMET: Well, you know, there’s lots of deli’s and I guess that’s kind of a normal thing that they have in deli’s in New York and LA. I’ve tasted it but the idea that I’m tasting something that could’ve been tasting me before that is kind of you know… but if you’ve ever had pastrami it kind of tastes like pastrami depending on how you do it but it’s gross! Looking at it in the case, it looks like a giant tongue! You kind of marvel at the fact “wow, cow tongues are huge!” And then people like to eat that, like my dad.

HAPPY: I mean, each to their own.

AHMET: Remember that next time you’re deciding what to have for lunch.

HAPPY: No, no. I don’t think I will [laughs].

AHMET: Eating meat that’s tasting you while you’re eating it, nightmare fuel!

HAPPY: [Feigns spewing] Yeah thanks, I was keen for lunch before this. 

AHMET: Well, you know what not to order!

HAPPY: [Laughs] So, was it that assurance from Alex that really made you trust him with this project?

AHMET: For sure! For me, I have this ability, for better or for worse, to separate my own emotional state. Looking at the project and what’s needed. First and foremost, Alex was coming to me as a director wanting to do something, so then I put on my producer hat and I was like okay even though ultimately, we need to get my mother’s blessing to do this. I also had an understanding of seeing his films and respecting him as a filmmaker, so I was already comfortable. I really wanted to be able to have my mother feel comfortable and I saw that naturally play out because I’m my mother’s son and it’s about making sure she feels comfortable and protected and that Frank will be protected and all of that felt very relaxed. There was real mutual trust immediately. Sometimes you have to go with your gut and take that chance and I’m so happy that we did, and I’m so happy that she did because I think the movie is beautiful.

HAPPY: Yeah, it definitely is! What did your role as a producer entail for this film?

AHMET: Really championing Alex, I had many roles. Also, it’s also our archive, our assets. It’s lots of things. It’s clearing music, kind of boring stuff, but the simplest thing if I’m producing anything, it takes many people that have to share a vision to get the project done and you can have differences of opinion and every opinion is valid. It’s about trying to have everyone to try and work as a team to finish the project. So, my role was in the service of Alex as the director.

It’s kind of like an insane thing to also go through because I don’t want there to be censorship. I didn’t want to say like, “Alex use this” or “don’t use that” because I just want to champion him and his creative vision and then there were certainly things where I was like wow that’s tough to watch. Like my dad talking about getting the clap or getting penicillin and you know, really thinking about how my dad was cheating on my mother. You put that out of your mind. So, there were tough things to swallow and you’ve just got to believe in the director.

frank zappa

HAPPY: Well like you said, it would have been a very transformative experience to make this.

AHMET: It was super cathartic because I learned a lot and I got to see things. I really do feel like I’m in total gratitude and total appreciation mode because even though the experience was fraught with danger, to get to ultimately being released I got to hear my dad laugh. I got to see footage of my mother and father so happy. When you lose both of your parents, and the fact that I think it’s probably pretty even rare even today to have a full movie studio in your pocket with your phone, it’s pretty rare that there’s so much documentation that my mother and father made happen in their lives that I get to re-live these memories with them and to see things that pre-date my birth. Like seeing my father limping after he was attacked by a crazy fan, that part always makes me so angry and sad for him. It’s a personal film, there’s no way around it.

HAPPY: Yeah, absolutely! Did you and your siblings have much of a role in what ended up going to screen or was it all Alex’s vision?

AHMET: We were really cognizant, my older brother, older sister, and really my little sister didn’t really have any involvement in the process. It was pretty mercenary and kind of making sure Alex had what he needed. It wasn’t such a creative kind of journey in that sense because his process is reviewing a lot of film footage and that’s hundreds of hours of time spent doing that to cherry-pick things in the mathematical equation of the narrative of how he was piecing things together to ultimately tell the story and because none of us could be in his head it would’ve been way too much of a frustrating experience I think for him, and I identified that pretty early on.

It was more about making sure he had the access, had the support and when he had the things that he wanted or needed, could we track something down here or there, that was mostly me and the team of people that our family employs. I guess from that perspective it is kind of all of us, it’s a family business that we have. We have a lot of help from trusted employees that we have that go back 20 or so years that are so helpful through the entire process.

HAPPY: Absolutely, well one final question. The mantra that you always hear when people talk about Frank is that he was ahead of his time. Do you think that society has finally caught up to him yet?

AHMET: I kind of do! They are catching up! I think that a lot of the things he talked about in the film feel like they were so disruptive to people, but I grew up in that, so it felt totally normal and felt like everyone was blind to the clearness of thought and I think people thought he was maybe a bit coo-coo, unfortunately. I think they’ve all come around. He was definitely a futurist and a lot of the language that he might have gotten him blacklisted from music is tame in comparison to the musical content that we have today and entertainment that we have today. It was like the most censored person and fought for all artists rights. That’s the fun thing. I hope that people can see and understand the difference that Frank made for all artists. It set a pretty awesome example and to me, he’s my hero.

HAPPY: Well, thank you so much for the chat.

AHMET: Yeah, give me your address so I make sure I send you 700 pounds of tongue.

HAPPY: Fuck it, alright. Send it over. 

AHMET: Good for you, it’s not going to go well but thank you!


ZAPPA is hitting cinemas on February 18th. Read more here.