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Zappa's music lives on in Ugly Radio Rebellion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Most tribute or cover bands start from the same place: the founder of the band is a big fan. Scott Schroen of Ugly Radio Rebellion, a Frank Zappa tribute band that plays Sunday night at The Empty Glass, can't say the same.

"That's kind of interesting," he said. "I'm really not a Zappa fan. What I mean by that is I didn't grow up with it. My parents didn't turn me on to his music."

In fact, the Atlanta-based musician said he never saw Zappa perform live. He's not even a great resource for the avant-garde rocker's stories, history or trivia. Other people know that stuff a lot better than he does.

What Schoen said he is a fan of is being challenged, and the music of Frank Zappa, whose music inspired everyone from heavy metal greats Black Sabbath and Deep Purple to new age pianist George Winston, is challenging.

From the early 1960s until his death in 1993, Zappa played everything from the electric guitar, keyboards and drums to the musical saw and a bicycle. His music touched on jazz, rock and classical styles. A staunch opponent of censorship and no stranger to controversy, Zappa's lyrics earned him the attention of parents groups, the Anti-Defamation League and others.

In 1995, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1997, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys. 

Schroen said that after playing Frank Zappa's music for the last 10 years, doing things like playing guitar in a blues band is easy.

"I can do that with all but one finger tied behind my back," he laughed.

Schoen started his Zappa tribute band in Detroit during the summer of 2002, as a bit of break from the kind of music he was used to playing.

"I was looking for something new and unusual."

Frank Zappa seemed to be about as unusual as he could come up with. So he placed an ad in the local paper, asking for musicians: 32 people responded, more than he could use.

"We had something called 'Zappa Survivor,'" Schroen explained. From the 32, there came six, and from the six, a band he called Uncle Meat.

Schroen said, "That lasted for a year and a half, then everyone burned out but me."

So he moved, regrouped and started Ugly Radio Rebellion.

It's a small outfit. Ugly Radio Rebellion performs only a smattering of dates over the course of the year. Schroen plays and/or writes music for two other bands as well as teaches music lessons.

Currently, that band is a three-piece outfit.

"We can fit it all in one car," Schroen said. "No sponsorship. No agents, but it's just a blast. I can't believe we get away with this."

And Zappa fans come out to the shows. Sometimes they'll be waiting for them in the parking lot of the club, making requests and asking for autographs before the band gets inside.

"We're like, 'If you'll let us in and set up, we'll actually play these things for you.'"

Shows, he promised, are long.

"We do two long sets with a break in the middle. The first set's about an hour and fifteen minutes. The second one, we play until they make us stop."

Occasionally, Schroen said, former Frank Zappa sideman Ike Willis tours with them, though not since last November.

"Ike is technically in the band," Schroen explained. "But he lives in Van Nuys California, and the way things have gotten economically, it's hard to have him along."

Willis, Schroen said, knows all about Frank Zappa. He has lots of stories.

"But we function as Frank Zappa's band -- he just never got to meet us."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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