Ike Willis Chats
By Evil Prince
T'Mershi Duween, #54, October 1996
Another one of the interviews conducted by the Evil Prince, this one a phone conversation with the big man Ike Willis, conducted on March 24, 1996, interspersed cunningly with one from April 18 1996. Spot the joins ...
How is the Ike Willis Band?
We're in rehearsals right now; the band members are all here. The Band was established when I moved to Portland in 1988 and then I had this first Ike Willis Band in 1989. There was an earlier Ike Willis Band in 1985 in LA; this isn't the same band. That first band was the one that did the album 'Shoulda Gone Before I Left'. After the 1988 tour, I moved up here and started another band. We've had different band members over the years. We're playing pretty much the same kind of stuff as on that album: rock and roll, a little reggae and just all round silliness – the usual kind of stuff you're used to hearing from me.
We're working on a tour and a new album right now. Let me reverse that: we're working on the new album and then the tour comes right after that. The tour starts on about May 15 in the US and then we're hoping to come to Europe in September. I would love to play in Helsinki. The best part about doing the 1988 show in Helsinki was that by the time we got through doing the show at about 10.30, the sun was shining in my eyes thru the windows.
How would you describe the new album, 'Dirty Pictures'?
'Dirty Pictures' is the title cut of the album. I've got to explain this. My older brother who's an architect sent me some words for a song called 'Dirty Pictures' – every so often he sends me lyrics. This was his idea about the porno movie business. He sent me a couple of verses based on that and I took it from there. I've done music for a couple of porn movies and I have a lot of friends who do music for them, as well as knowing people who actually act in them. My former guitar player used to be married to a porn star. So, the song hit pretty close to home to me. I thought it was a great idea and decided to make that the title cut. I decided to have small pictures of not only those kind of pictures but pictures of dirt and band pictures and lots of silly stuff. You could take the whole context wherever you want. Bearing in mind that we're pretty silly guys, we figured we'd have as much fun with it as possible.
How would you compare 'Dirty Pictures' to your first album?
I think this one will be a much more exciting album, a lot funnier and a lot looser. I had a lot of problems getting my first album done because of the engineer that I had and he was hired by somebody else. He tried to take over the project and a lot of strange things were happening there. As a result, the fidelity isn't great and the sound isn't as good as I'd like. There are certain frequencies that I wanted to come out which didn't. But this particular album will rock out a lot more.
Do you write all the music for the band?
Yes. Actually, this album has a couple of collaborations with my guitar player. One is called 'Planet Number Three' and the other is called 'Inside Out'. There's a sort of combination of both of our writing styles on there. It'll be still be very familiar though.
What has been your concept of survival in the music business outside Zappa? Have you made a living out of your own projects?
Yeah, but it hasn't been as good a living. I've been in the music business for thirty-two years now and I seem to be able to make a living out of it. Sometimes it's bad and sometimes it's OK.
How did it all start?
I started back in the 1960s when I was eight. My mother was a jazz singer and I started singing when I was about two or three years old. I've been singing ever since until I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and I decided to start playing guitar. I was then eight and basically took it from there.
What were your primary influences and your education in music?
There were a lot. First my mother and then she was like kids with Lou Rawls, Miles Davis and people like that so I had a heavy jazz background and a little classical background. I used to listen to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and Beethoven ... But also musically in there was Chuck Berry and the Beatles and Stevie Wonder and the Stones, Cream; all through the 1960s there were so many influences. Those are the people I really liked. Then through the 1970s, I got into people like John McLaughlin, Yes, Led Zeppelin and Hendrix of course. I had no formal training at school.
How did you meet Zappa for the first time?
It was back in 1977 when my wife and I were at college. He'd come to do a concert and I was on the local crew. I happened to meet him after the soundcheck. We started talking. We basically hit it off really well and he made me play and sing for him. He told me he liked the way I played and sang and he would like me to audition for his band.
Essentially after the 'Sheik Yerbouti' tour, he called me when I was still in college and told me he was going to fly me out for audition in the band. I flew out a week after that and made the band. The rest is history. The auditions were great. When I walked through the door, there was a line of about thirty or forty people. He'd already had everything set up for me, and he gave me a stack of words and told me to help him audition the other people. He said 'Let's get to work'; that was on Tuesday and I didn't get to do my audition until two days later and it only took about twenty seconds; then we went back to work auditioning other people and I was hired the next day.
So what happened during those twenty seconds?
He just had me play several things that I'd already been playing for him the previous two days. It was sort of like a formality. I was hired on the same day as Arthur Barrow and Vinnie Colaiuta because I helped audition Artie and Vinnie.
Were there other candidates for the singing posts?
You have to understand that whenever Frank held auditions, there were always candidates for every post. Frank would audition at every position in the band, but it would be determined on what he wanted. There was always competition. I was in the band for many years, but every year we would hold auditions. There would always be someone to come up on guitar or vocals or both who would compete for my spot, but for some reason they never made it. I was there basically from 1978 until it was over.
What's your vocal register?
I started out as a first tenor, but over the years, I've become sort of in the baritone to second tenor range. I can occasionally get to first tenor with a good stiff wind behind me. There's a lot of falsetto involved in the stuff, depending on the actual song.
Do you still do falsettos and feel comfortable with them?
Oh sure. Like I said, it just depends on the song.
Was Frank the first person to make you do that?
No. I've had choir directors. When I went to boarding school in Georgia, I used to sing in an accapella choir and I was a first tenor then. I've had choir directors that have made me use a lot of falsetto and a lot of my natural range, right down to baritone or first bass. I was born in 1955 and there was a lot of doo-wop going on (laughs). Frank was one of the greatest doo-wop baritone singers I've ever seen and heard. Frank was a great singer. He didn't think so. He didn't like his voice. He basically hired me because he said he didn't like his voice so much any more and he was tired of singing. I always tried to make him sing, because he was great at it.
It seems like you had a very good relationship with him. Could you clarify the secret word tradition a little? I think you and Frank were the prime movers in this.
(laughs). The secret word was based on whatever happened on the road that day or something that would have happened to a member of the band or in politics or to him or me or whatever and the secret word a lot of times would come out of that, depending on what was the stupidest.
What about the 1988 Beatles' mutilations?
You have to remember that 1988 was an election year in the US. We had these big fundamentalist Christian assholes (sound of laughter in the background) semi-Republicans running for office and they wanted no abortion and to put everyone in jail and that kind of stuff. Essentially all these Evangelists were getting arrested for being with prostitutes in hotels; and at the same time, Frank was a good friend of John Lennon. In 1980, when we were on tour, we were just about to go on stage in Milwaukee and that's when we heard that Lennon had just been killed.
When we came to the 1988 tour, we had all this material about Swaggart, Robertson and Falwell and all these guys who had all this money and were trying to influence American opinion about morality. Frank one day just came into rehearsal and asked if we knew any of those Beatles' tunes because he'd never played them and he'd never heard some of them all the way through. We worked out the tunes and then he got the idea into his head of twisting the words up and using that to make a statement about these evangelist guys. That's basically where it take from. Since it was an election year and as we were also doing the voter registration thing, we wanted to make it count for something.
Frank said once that you were the jokemeister.
I think I know what you mean. It was always easy for me when I heard something like that and Frank would come in and say something about politics or religion and I studied politics at college. There's always something much funnier especially in this country with real life as far as politicians and evangelists are concerned than you could ever make up. I could always find something funny about that. They are pretty silly, by and large. You have to take it with a grain of salt and remember these people thing they're better than the average person, but when you read what they say, it's pretty stupid.
Linked to the secret word tradition was the idea of replacing the lyrics of the songs. How did that come about?
It was the same thing. If something silly happened that day, and depending on where we were playing and how the audience was ... I have a habit of being able to change the words to a tune but they will still rhyme and they would still work. Frank would then laugh and do it back to me and I would do it back. There was a show we did back in Nantes in 1984 and we did almost the entire show by changing the words round, and it still worked. It was great and we laughed all night long. That's how it works. Frank hated being in France. There's nothing wrong with France, but we had been there almost two months and we were ready to go home. He said it was the attitude, and the audience and what was going on backstage; it was a combination of all of those things. It just so happened that night that we changed everything and it was the funniest thing we'd ever done. We want to be laughing more than the audience. The audience seem to think it's a written part of the show and it isn't. After all, the band members have to have fun too. It's a good attitude.
Were you ever worried how Frank would react to your outbursts of laughter in a song that might end up on a record?
No, never, because the only reason I would have an outburst of laughter is because Frank would cause it. Therefore I wouldn't worry about it. It was all his fault.
Frank had a very developed sense of what were the strongest points of his musicians and in this way he could arrange appropriate lines for the players. How did this apply to you? What are your strongest points and how did he stretch your limits?
He would stretch them every day. He'd just tell me to do a certain thing and if I couldn't do it, which was very very rare. There was only one thing that I can remember that he asked me to do that I couldn't do because I didn't have enough fingers (the mind boggles!-Ed). He would stretch the limits by telling us to do things and not think about it too much. He set those kind of standards. If I didn't know how to do things at that point, he would show me. The way he approached it was very good because you didn't get a chance to think about it.
Have you any distinct memories of any particular song, concerning this stretching biznis?
There were times when we would do those things like 'Black Napkins' or 'Zoot Allures'. Some of that stuff from 1988 has very fond memories because Frank was a very underrated guitar player and he was such a fine player that a lot of people didn't realise or get the chance to hear him play. There were times when you could really hear what was going on there. When we went out as the Banned from Utopia and started doing the tunes, it would be like the old days because let's face it, these were the guys I recorded the albums with. Now with my guys in this band, we're going to take it to another level. As my bass player just said, we're going to be pushing the envelope. The thing is that with the Muffin Men, I'm playing Frank's stuff; with the Banned from Utopia, I'm playing Frank's stuff; but with the Ike Willis Band, we're gonna be doing what we want to do because that's also what my fans want to see and hear also.
How would you compare playing in Frank's band with playing with the Muffin Men or Banned from Utopia?
Playing with Frank as opposed to playing with The Muffin Men: they're great guys, very silly and they're very good. At first when they called me and asked me to play with them, I wasn't sure whether or not they were actually good enough to pull it off. But they're very good. I had no problem playing with them. But naturally it's different. First of all they're British and I had to spend a lot of time explaining to them what certain things meant because they couldn't quite understand what was being said. With the Banned from Utopia, these were the same guys that I recorded and toured with, so they were there. It's virtually no different with the Banned from Utopia except that Frank is not there. We're still doing the same thing except Frank isn't there to crack the whip.
What do you think of the Grandmothers?
When the Grandmothers first started, that was Artie, Don Preston, some of the Fowlers and me, Jimmy Carl, Motorhead; this was back in LA. That was way back in the early 1980s. That was the first and last time I did something with them. After that, they became something else, altogether different. I don't know, I'm telling you. I end up getting in trouble evry time I talk about the Grandmothers, basically because a) Gail Zappa hates them; and b) Gail Zappa hates them (laughs).
The thing is she's got a problem with Jimmy Carl and Don Preston. When we did our first major gig at the Roxy back in 1981 or '82, it was cool, because there was Tony Duran, Bunk and Buzz, the Fowlers, Artie Barrow, Jimmy Carl Black and Don Preston. It was a totally different thing back then. For years, I'd been touring and I'd hear things about the Grandmothers. When I signed with Muffin Records, I didn't know that the Grandmothers were with Muffin. Since I signed with Muffin and got involved with them, Gail did not want them around at all. She gave us a whole bunch of problems which is why they ended up being dropped from the label. Otherwise Muffin wouldn't have been able to get off the ground and we wouldn't have been able to get anything done, because Gail was doing everything in her power to stop the Grandmothers doing anything. This was because of the law-suit that was brought when Frank was still alive over lost royalties and things like that. Jimmy and Don are good friends of mine, but professionally we can't be seen together.
How does Gail feel about the Muffin Men and Banned from Utopia?
At first, she hated both of them until I rang her and told her what was going on. Gail has always been very protective of Frank and his image etc, and she thought it was just someone coming along to try to make to make money off his name until she found out that Tommy, Bruce and people like that were involved in it. I had to let her know who Reinhardt at Muffin was and it was not the case. She is making money every time we play one of Frank's songs; she gets the royalties and she's continuing to be rich from it. Therefore she has no complaints with Ike Willis about it.
How were the lead vocalists and harmony singers chosen for each Zappa song?
That would just depend on the song. When Ray White was in the band, as he has the higher voice, that would change things. For example 'Doreen' is no longer in my range, so Ray would take it. But Frank would write most of the songs in my range. In 1980, Ray did 'City Of Tiny Lites' which was before Bobby Martin joined the band and he did it in 1988. In the 1980 band, the vocals were Ray, and me, Frank and Tommy essentially. In the second 1980 band, Bob Harris was in there. It depends on the personnel of the band. Bob Harris used a lot of falsetto. He's got a lot of that natural range but he doesn't have the pure power of a Bobby Martin, power which is very scary actually.
Were the instrumental vocal bits on things like 'Montana' difficult to sing?
I thought they were great fun. On the 'Apostrophe (')' album (sic), that's Tina Turner and the Ikettes singing the 'I'm plucking the old dental floss' bit. If Tina Turner can do it, I can certainly do it. The thing is, she was having problems with it (laughs). That wasn't exactly her cup of tea. For me, it made perfect sense, if that's how the notes go. There's a lot of notes, but the main thing is pronouncing the words. It's like speaking too fast, musically.
What were the most demanding things you did as Frank's vocalist?
'Thing-Fish'. There was a lot of work involved and a lot of changes because the script would change every day and we'd have to go back and do things over, not because they were wrong but because we had more ideas (hard to believe, eh chums?-Ed). The ideas kept on coming and we would just change things around a lot. The fact that we were doing that and working with the Synclavier which had just come out ... I worked the hardest on that.
Let's talk more about 'Thing-Fish' as it's one of your major works. First the dialect; I know a programme called 'Kingfish'.
It's a combination of that and part of something that my mother and I used to do. My mum used to be a jazz singer and it was sort of like a joke thing we used to do between ourselves. Also, the dialect comes from a black poet at the turn of the century by the name of Paul Lawrence Dunbar. I told Frank about this guy because that's really where the dialect comes from, from 'Amos and Andy'. Dunbar used to write his poems in that dialect, exactly the same way you see it written in the libretto on 'Thing-Fish'. I always thought that was great and pretty funny.
So you were part of inventing the language?
Oh yes, definitely.
How about the learning process and how to make it sound real on the record?
Well, it didn't take that much time on the record at all, since I'd been playing around with this dialect for years. The learning process wasn't that long. Frank would basically write the script and we'd just turn it into the dialect right before I went into the vocal booth to do it.
There's a lot of tunes in there like 'Torchum'. Are they ridiculing the way black people talk?
Not at all. Basically we were just being funny. The main thing is to take words that people use and bend them out of shape.
It sounds like you have a potato in your potato-head. Do the potato-headed people refer to blacks?
No, that actually comes from the libretto talking about what they do to the prisoners. That's what they actually do with prisoners in the US. They put things like saltpetre in the food to lower their sex drive and they mix it with the mashed potato so it will keep them calm and non-violent. That's why Thing-Fish became a potato-headed mutant because of all the mystery chemicals in the mashed potato.
Do you think 'Thing-Fish' has a message, even today?
Oh yeah (laughs). Why not? It's true.
You've said that it was hard to record the album because you had to learn new things all the time. and things changed every day.
That was just a normal part of the working process because the script would change on a daily basis, because Frank would get more ideas every day and we would add more to it daily. That's how the story got bigger and bigger. There's a lot of words to pour out on that one. That was the longest of the albums to record that I ever did with Frank.
So what's the message of the album today, or even when it was made?
Well ... Basically it has several messages. It was part of a government thing that we'd found out about. AIDS suddenly appeared out of nowhere back around 1983 and there were rumours that the government had something to do with it. Secondly, how they tried to manipulate people and put them in prison – that's another message. And the main message is 'Don't trust everything the government says because they're not always right'. Very seldom are they always right (laughs).
How do you see 'Joe's Garage' in the light of 'Thing-Fish'?
It's sort of like the same thing, it's another part of that, part of Conceptual Continuity, if you know what I mean. That's why we used some of the things from 'Joe's Garage' and combined them with the concept of 'Thing-Fish'.
Personally speaking, how would you compare your work on the two albums?
I worked a lot harder on 'Thing-Fish'. On 'Joe's Garage', I basically just sang and that was my first album with Frank. On 'Thing-Fish', I was not only the main character but also the narrator and it was double duty, a lot of playing, singing and talking on there. Plus keeping within the same character which was great. I enjoyed the work. Frank had me doing as many things as possible, as many as I could do.
What was new for you recording with Frank Zappa that first time in the studio?
It was great. I'd recorded a couple of small projects back in St. Louis where I'm from, but when we got to the studio with Frank, I'd never done recording like that before. Ever. The way that he did things was great, and basically he just gave me my instructions and let me do what I wanted to do. His actual words were 'OK, this is the Ike Willis show. I'll just give you the basic instructions and then you give your interpretation of the songs'. His basic philosophy was Sell That Tune.
Did the other guys do the instrumental sections first and then you did the vocals?
Sometimes we did it at the same time. Most of it was done live, me singing while the basic tracks were being laid down. I was standing in the drum booth with Vinnie playing the complicated drum rhythms on 'Keep It Greasey' and singing. Frank told me that 'Joe's Garage' was the first time that he'd had the whole live band recording an album in the studio in eight years.
Did you ever have a problem with the lyrics?
I never had any problems with the lyrics. The only time it almost sort of seemed like I was going to have problems with the lyrics was with 'Thing-Fish' but only because of what the government or other people might say. But I didn't really care as we had a statement to make.
Was it difficult to find the right mood to sing the songs that were not normal?
It's not really a mood thing. If it strikes me as funny, that's fine with me. I don't try to look for a specific mood or anything. It just depends on what works.
What was the reason that 'Thing-Fish' was never done on stage?
Basically because it would have cost five million dollars to produce it on Broadway, at that time in 1983. We had some backers but we just didn't have the money. It's a lot of money. Hustler paid for the Thing-Fish costume I wore and they backed us for something like one and a half million or so. We had a few other backers but not enough.
What's the favourite Zappa song that you've done?
That's a very difficult question. People have asked me that before and I don't know. It changes sometimes. I don't know if I really have a favourite Zappa song because I've done too many of them.
What was your favourite tour?
I think probably the 1984 tour. The 1988 tour would have been my absolute favourite tour only the people who were managing Frank at the time were not my favourite people. The 1988 tour as far as the was band was concerned because it was the best band that we ever had. The 1988 tour was the most fun.
Why weren't you with the 1981 band?
I was at home having my children. I was starting a family, in 1981 and 1982. I stayed home until my son was born in 1982. I was still doing the albums, and I went out in 1984 because that was after both of my kids were born. My wife wanted me to take a little break.