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Mike Keneally of The Zappa Band recalls Frank as a bandleader

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Mike Keneally of The Zappa Band recalls Frank as a bandleader (Photos of The Zappa Band in concert by Annie Lessner)

We remember Frank Zappa as a brilliant composer, an ultimate nonconformist, a cultural satirist without peer and as a dedicated workaholic that seemingly spent every waking moment either writing, recording or performing music.

The Zappa Band is a six-piece group consisting of former members of Frank’s band whose mission it is to deliver his music as accurately as possible in a live concert experience.

The Zappa Band dipped their toes in the water last year when they opened shows on a tour with King Crimson and have just wrapped a successful initial headlining tour with the hope of announcing further dates in the future.

The lineup of The Zappa Band features Mike Keneally on guitars, keys and vocals, Ray White on vocals and guitar, Robert Martin on vocals, keys and sax, Scott Thunes on bass and vocals, Joe Travers on drums and vocals, and Jamie Kime on guitar.

Mike Keneally was just 25 years old when his dream of performing in Frank Zappa’s band became reality. He joined the band, playing guitar and keyboards on what proved to be the legend’s final tour in 1988.

Following Zappa’s death in 1993, Keneally went on to work with Zappa’s eldest son Dweezil on solo albums and in the band Z. He’s been a member of Zappa alumni Steve Vai’s touring band, Joe Satriani’s studio band, and has released more than 35 solo albums, including 2012’s “Wing Beat Fantastic,” featuring songs written by Keneally with Andy Partridge of XTC.

During the following interview, Keneally recalls the incredible story of how he entered Zappa’s orbit after years dedicated to listening and learning the complete Zappa discography.

(This interview aired in its entirety on the web-based jam-band station JEMP Radio ( and has been edited here for space.)

The Maine Edge: What do you recall about the first time you heard Frank Zappa’s music?

Mike Keneally: When I was eight years old in 1970, I saw The Mothers of Invention on The Dick Cavett Show. I had seen pictures of Frank and thought he had kind of a scary look so when I tried to imagine what his music might sound like, I envisioned all kinds of terrifying things. On the Cavett show, they started with this lovely waltz on a song called “Sofa.” I was taken aback and that was an important lesson for me as a young kid not to judge a book by its cover. I figured the music would be freaky and ugly and intentionally off-putting and in fact it was this really pretty song.

Not long after that, an older kid across the street stopped me and said “You’re weird, I have this song you need to hear and I think you’re going to like it.” He ended up playing me the song “Help, I’m a Rock” from the album “Freak Out!” and it legitimately changed my life and helped set me on the path that leads me to this interview (laughs).

TME: The story of how you became a member of Frank Zappa’s band sounds almost like a fairytale. Could you share that?

Keneally: At the time (1987) Frank had a hotline: 818-Pumpkin. Before most people knew there was such a thing as the internet, that hotline was the way to find out the latest information about Frank and I would call it every week. One day the message said “For those of you who’ve heard the rumors, they are true. Frank is in rehearsal with a new band.” That was huge news because he’d sworn he would never tour again.

My first thought was “Cool, I get to see another show.” Then I thought maybe I should get a little more ambitious. I literally used to dream about playing in Frank’s band and this was probably the last chance I would get to see that dream come true. So I called again the next day when there were people in the office and this guy Gerry Fialka (Zappa’s archivist and production assistant for a decade) answered. I told him I wasn’t sure if Frank was looking for anybody but that I played guitar, keyboards and I sang and that I was familiar with the entire repertoire and had taught myself how to play a lot of it.

Frank called me himself the next day. He said, “You can play all of my music?” I told him I’ve played a lot of it and am familiar with all of it. I had listened to his entire output so much it had taken up permanent residence in my head. He said, “Do you have any idea how many songs that is?” I said “Yeah, they’re all in the next room.” He said “I don’t believe you. Get your ass up here and prove it.”

TME: Amazing, it’s like you willed it to happen. The Zappa Band plays music from most every era of Frank’s career. How do you decide which tunes to tackle?

Keneally: Our drummer is Joe Travers whose day gig is being the vault-master for the Zappa family. His job is to go through the endless tape vault of unreleased Zappa music and restore those live and studio tapes. Joe has been responsible for the amazing archival releases we’ve seen over the last few years. It generally falls to Joe to put together the set-lists for the shows but everybody in the band has input.

There’s a real desire on our part to kind of cover the gamut because the catalog is so rich. One of the most exciting things about Frank is that you never knew what to expect when he put out a new album. We’ve got stuff from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, including some material that Frank never released in his lifetime. We want to provide a well-rounded program and also be cognizant of the fact that when you get on the road, there are certain hardcore freaks about the music who like to go to multiple shows and we enjoy keeping things interesting for them.

When we opened for King Crimson last year, we had a rigidly prescribed time slot, so we played the same set every night. For our first headlining tour we have a lot more leeway to be more relaxed about the time we spend onstage.

TME: Did Frank socialize with the rest of the band on that final tour or did he mostly keep to himself when you weren’t together onstage?

Keneally: There was a certain amount of keeping to himself. He generally stayed in different hotels and traveled separately from us. But once we got to the gig, there was a two-hour soundcheck rehearsal every day. Between the soundcheck and the gig, we would all gather and discuss that night’s show because he came up with a different setlist for every show. We had a working repertoire of about 120 songs, I think. He liked to have songs segue from one to the next without interruption so we would always have a huddle where we would discuss those transitions. Those were always enjoyable where we would verbally sing those transitions. Sometimes he would get on the bus with us and sometimes we would all be in the same hotel and there would be a bit more socializing. I think for the most part he was happy to keep that distance and that it was necessary for him to have some time to himself.

TME: Was Frank the happiest when the music came together as he envisioned?

Keneally: I think so but there were also times, especially during rehearsals in LA before the tour, when we would all go out to dinner together. Those are some of my favorite memories when we would take a break from rehearsing and go out to a nice restaurant. Frank was a very congenial dinner pal. I also remember times when something funny would happen, like Ike Willis (Zappa band member from 1978-1988) would say something to make Frank laugh and he would lose control. Control was so important to Frank, it was always such a memorable and wonderful thing when it happened.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 July 2022 05:00


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