Note: As he aptly explains in the first question, Jon Beazlie is not a journalist, nor a writer. He is LEO’s production coordinator, and more informally a cultural ambassador. The operative fact herein is that he’s LEO’s resident Frank Zappa maniac. So when the Music Desk learned that Ike Willis was coming to town with his band Project/Object — which dutifully plays the music of Zappa — we asked the Beaz, as he’s known, to do it. Willis, after all, was a Zappa guitarist and vocalist for 17 years. That’s a long time.[img_assist|nid=1302|title=Project/Object|desc=Photo by Laura Wilson|link=|align=right|width=200|height=127]
LEO: I just want to tell you real quick I’m not a journalist or anything like that, I’m just the resident Zappa fan, so I’m just going to geek out on you for a few minutes.
Ike Willis: Cool.
LEO: It’s an honor to speak with you. I’ve seen Project/Object a few times. Anyway, tell me a little bit about Project/Object, how all that got started.
IW: Well, it got started about 10, 11 years ago, at a Zappa birthday party kind of thing, and with these betties who were musicians, etcetera, and they would play for their friends, and they got to be so good that they’d do a gig or two, like on Frank’s birthday. They did a few of those and it just happened so well that Andre (Cholmondeley) decided to make it into a band. I joined the band in 1997. Actually, I’m going into my 10th year with Project/Object.
LEO: Excellent. What other Mothers — older, original Mothers — are on this tour, or have been?
IW: Well, the only other ones really are the Grandmothers, who I helped form back in ’81, actually, with the Fowler Brothers and people like that. The Fowler Brothers and Bunk and Buzz Gardner and Motorhead and Don Preston and those guys.
LEO: So I heard you came up with the term “pluke.”
IW: Actually my mother did. It’s an old family silliness term. Yeah, it’s been in the Willis family for a long, long time. I brought that with me on Joe’s Garage.
LEO: I guess that’s a term for, to get fucked or something?
IW: It could be anything. It’s one of my mother’s silly terms, you know, it just happened to be apropos for the occasion.
LEO: Excellent. So you were with Frank for 15, 16 years?
IW: 17 years.
LEO: How did that come about? How did you meet him?
IW: Well, it was basically when my wife and I were in college back in, uh, ’77, the beginning of our senior year in college, at Washington University in St. Louis. And Frank was scheduled to come and do a concert, and I was on the local crew, just a local humper to help schlep equipment and take notes for my own bands and stuff like that. We kind of made eye contact during the soundcheck and afterward, we just ran into each other and hit it off. He took me backstage with him and asked me, ran me through the ringer, asked me if I was a musician, what I may play, etcetera, etcetera, and we spent about an hour or so before the show just talking and playing and singing and laughing and stuff like that. We just hit it off really, really well. And after the tour — this was the beginning of the “Sheik Your Booty” tour in ’77 — after, it was about eight months later, after graduation and stuff, the beginning of summer school, he called me back and said he wanted to fly me out to audition for the band. So he did and I did, and the rest, as they say, is histoi.
LEO: (Laughing) Oh yeah. Are you guys using any props, like stuffed giraffes or poodles?
IW: Oh, well, whenever they bring them I use ’em. The fans have always been great with the toys and stuff. We still collect ’em.
LEO: So it’s stuff that the fans bring in?
IW: Oh yeah, that’s where I get ’em. In fact, the other night in Providence we got our first oven mitt, so that’s pretty cool.
LEO: Tell me about the quilt made out of panties.
IW: Oh, the quilt got made; it’s in Atlantic City. The girl from Colorado, she made a huge quilt. We started collecting the panties and stuff in 1980, and there just got to be so much of them Frank said, “Eh, we’ll have ’em make a quilt out of it.” Actually, this girl from Colorado, she offered to make a quilt because that’s what she does, she’s a seamstress and stuff, she’s a big fan, and she decided to make a quilt out of these things. So after awhile, after a couple tours, we had just gallons and gallons and tons and tons of ’em. She finally got around to constructing this huge quilt, and it’s on display in one of the casinos in Atlantic City. I haven’t even seen it yet. One of these days I plan on seeing it.
LEO: What about some of the guitar players that you’ve got with you, Andre and “Sea Hag”?
IW: Andre, of course, blistering guitar player. Of course, Robbie “Sea Hag” Mangano, amazing guitar player himself, he joined us when he was 22 or 23 … (Willis asks how old were you when you joined us? to Mangano, who appears to be sitting near him) … about 23, yeah, yeah. Andre and I, we go back 20 years. This is our 20th year together here. They’re amazing guitar players, man. Between Sea Hag and Andre and myself, we can pretty much cover all the bases.
LEO: Yeah, like I said, I’ve seen you three times, and if you don’t pay attention or close your eyes, it’s like —
IW: Close your eyes and there it is, man.
LEO: Yeah, exactly. It’s amazing.
IW: Essentially this is a Frank Zappa band. All that’s missing is Frank. That’s very important, what the deal is.
LEO: He’s still there in heart, I’m sure.
IW: No question about it. He’s here, man. He’s with me all the time.
LEO: Has Gail Zappa or any of the family seen you guys? What do they think about all this?
IW: She tries to sue me every year.
LEO: Wow, OK. That’s interesting.
IW: Hates my guts.
LEO: I can’t imagine.
IW: Yeah, I don’t understand it either, but that’s how it works. Frank asked me to do this before he died, and I don’t know why that would upset her so much, but it does. All I’m doing is basically just following my final instructions from my boss, and that’s about it.
LEO: Well I appreciate it, and I’m sure other people do, too.
IW: That’s one of the main reasons, too. I can’t go large chunks of time without thinking about the music, or playing it, or wanting to play it or wanting to hear it. There’s only specific circumstances under which you can hear this stuff. It’s got to be in a Frank Zappa band. Essentially that’s how I work it. Nobody tries to be Frank. Nobody tries to act like Frank. I play my same parts I’ve been playing for the last almost 30 years, and I just play my regular parts and assign the other parts and make sure all the boys are playing them accordingly, according to instructions. When that is the case, that is what it’s been — we all get our Zappa fix because that’s the true music.
LEO: I think I’ve got one last question for you. Frank was always known for carrying around a tape recorder and getting all these weird conversations on tape without people knowing. Were you ever caught on tape, and if so —
LEO: You were never caught on tape?
LEO: How did that happen?
IW: It’s cause I knew better. (Laughter) Remember, I worked for the guy. I knew where to be, so when I wasn’t on stage, I would be elsewhere.
LEO: So you just knew to keep your mouth shut and —
IW: Damn right.
LEO: — and stay out of trouble.
IW: Thing with keeping my mouth shut — I mean, hell, after playing several-hour concerts and etcetera, etcetera, and all that stuff, hell, who’s got enough strength to talk? You know?
IW: I would just do my gig and go back and collapse, pretty much. Yeah, but it was a lot of fun. It is a lot of fun.
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