Ike Willis is a guitarist who has the longest tenure as a band member with Frank Zappa. He met Frank at college as a local crew roadie and student at Washington University in St. Louis, and they immediately hit it off. Frank always liked to change lineups after a tour and he told Ike on the day they met that he would be contacting him after the tour for an audition. That's exactly what he did and Ike stayed with him until he died in 1993. Ike now plays in numerous Zappa tribute bands but the band "Project Object" is the main one. They are set to tour once again in the fall of 2015. I recently conversed with Ike.
R.V.B. - Hello Ike
I.W. - That would be me.
R.V.B. - This is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island, New York... how are you today?
I.W. - Hey what's happening man. How's it going?
R.V.B. - It's going pretty good. I see that you're getting ready for another Project Object tour.
I.W. - Yes, finally
R.V.B. - It is the longest running Frank Zappa tribute band correct?
I.W. - You better believe it. They're my number one Zappa tribute band. These are my guys.
R.V.B.- It seems that you have quite a few Zappa Tribute bands.
I.W. - Yeah, I've got about 12 of them... world wide. I keep losing count. I had more but some have gone out of business and others have taken their place.
R.V.B. - Who's in the current lineup?
I.W. - You know what... I have no idea. As far as I know it's me Andre, Denny Walley, Eric Svalgard on keyboards... I think Max Johnsen is going to be playing bass. I don't know who we got on drums yet. I'm waiting for Andre to send me the full line-up. When I first started with Project Object in 1997, we had a set lineup of people. Since 2000, it's been changing every year... every tour. So your guess is as good as mine. I think I named everyone except who's going to be playing drums.
R.V.B. - I guess it's kind of healthy to change up the members right? It adds a little different flavor here and there?
I.W. - Well Frank did it with us all the time. Every Zappa band I was ever in starting in 1978 had a different lineup on every tour. I was with him until he died in 93. It was always different. We always had different personnel every tour.
R.V.B. - How did you decide to play the guitar? Why the guitar and not the trumpet let's say?
I.W. - Well essentially when I first saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964... I saw John Lennon and George Harrison of course I pretty much wanted to play the guitar. I was already singing. I was singing since I was a little, little kid. I was 8 years old in 1964 when I saw them on Ed Sullivan and I was pretty much hooked.
R.V.B. - You and a million other people in the world.
I.W. - Exactly... that's how these things work. I'm almost 60 years old now and every time I see that old footage, I remember it and it still has the same effect. It's the same thing when I first saw Hendrix and I first heard Frank, and I first heard Santana, and all of my other favorite guitar players. They all had the same effect.
R.V.B. - So what did you do... did you talk your parents into buying a guitar?
I.W. - Yep. I talked my mom and dad into buying me a cheap old acoustic guitar. That lasted about a week. It broke because it was so cheap. I had them buy me another one and I just kept on playing.
R.V.B. - So I gather you tackled a couple of Beatles songs at first.
I.W. - Nothing but, man. I started going after Beatles, Stones, Stevie Wonder, you name it. My mom was a jazz singer so I tackled everything I could get my hands on.
I.W. - Hahaha. Well about a year after I got my first guitar. I started my first band when I turned 9... back in St. Louis, where I'm from. My first band was called The X-men and my first gig was at this art, hippie, love-in festival in 64/65. One of the opening acts turned out to be Canned Heat. They opened up for my first band.
R.V.B. - That's pretty good company
I.W. - Yeah, it was pretty good company. I was only 9 years old... I had no idea. Everybody was young back then. Everybody was starting their own bands. If you owned an instrument... that was basically you're in to having a band. I became an employee when I was 9 years old. Ever since then, I've always had my own band.
R.V.B. - I gather it consisted of guitar bass and drums?
I.W. - Guitar, bass, and drums... that's it. You had to have 2 guitars, bass, and drums because that's The Beatles basic setup. That' what did it for me. It's the basic instrumentation. You can add keyboards but 2 guitars, bass, and drums is the ultimate classic setup.
R.V.B. - Now through high school... were you in the school band or did you develop your skills after school on your own?
I.W. - I was never in the school band. By the time I got into high school, I always had my own band. I never really learned how to read music. I just started playing. I was doing gigs in coffee houses, and night clubs, and places like that since I was a kid. This is before junior High... while I was in grade school. I didn't have time to do the marching band and school band, because I was doing gigs.
R.V.B. - Were you writing any of your own material at that time?
R.V.B. - So you eventually went to Washington University.
I.W. - I did. I went to regular grade school... junior high school... 1 year of high school... 3 years of boarding school, and then right into college.
R.V.B. - What did you study?
I.W. - I'm a political science law major.
R.V.B. - That kind of fits in with Frank's music.
I.W. - Oh totally. Frank loved that. When the beginning of my senior year rolled around, that's when I met Frank... October 2nd 1977. That was at the beginning of the Sheik Yerbouti tour. I was on the local crew, just to schlep equipment and help the guys set up the equipment. Frank and I just happened to meet. We made eye contact after I spent all day hanging out with his crew setting up the equipment. After the sound check, he called me over to his table in the hospitality room and just started talking to me. He did the usual 3rd degree... he asked me if I played instruments and what kind of stuff I was into. Then he dragged me back to his dressing room, when it was time for him to get ready for the show. He handed me his guitar... told me to play... told me to sing.
R.V.B. - Holy crap, so you got like an immediate audition.
I.W. - I didn't think about it that way because he was the nicest guy. It wasn't like he was putting any pressure on me. Now that I think back, it was incredibly pressure filled but I didn't think of it that way. He was basically asking me questions. What instrument I played and how have I been playing?... was I into any of his shit? I said "Well sure, I know some of your songs." He said "Well play me one." I played "Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy". I started singing it and he started singing along. Tommy Mars, Ed Mann, Patrick O'hearn, and Bozzio... Belew came in and he started singing along. It was like an old time hootenanny. Frank told me "Look, I have auditions every year for my band, after I get back from every tour. What I'd like to do is fly you out and have you audition for the band. I've been looking for a lead vocalist. I like the way you sing... I like the way you play." Like I said, this was at the beginning of the Sheik Yerbouti tour... in October of 77 and basically at the end of my senior year... while I was catching up on my credits... I was in my dorm room in summer school... the last two weeks of summer school... he called me in my dorm room and said "Hey it's me. I'm back. I'm keeping my word. I told you that I'd like to fly you here to audition for the band."
R.V.B. - That was in LA?
I.W. - He was in LA and I was still in St. Louis. He just got back... he gave me a call. I said "Ok sure Frank. If that's really who you are." (hahaha) This is like 8 months later. I really hadn't expected him to call me back, but he did. He flew me out the next week and essentially I made it. That's where I met Vinny Colaiuta, Artie Barrow, Peter Wolf, Tommy Mars... all those guys. I ended up passing the audition and I was with him from that point until he died in 93.
R.V.B. - Did you prepare for the audition? Did he tell you what songs they were going to play?
I.W. - He said basically, "Here's your ticket." He called me on a Tuesday and called me back the next Friday and said "Ok I got your ticket for Tuesday afternoon and I'll see you then. Can't wait to see you." So basically I flew into LA and we were rehearsing at the old Desilu studios from the old I Love Lucy show. I walk in... everything was all set up. It was Denny, Tommy, Ed, Peter Wolf. Frank was looking for drummers, vocalists, keyboard players and guitar players. We had to replace Adrian Belew, Terry Bozzio and Patrick O'hearn on bass. Essentially, he had everything all set up for me. He had a mic and a mic stand, an amp... and plug in your guitar... give me a hand with these other people that are auditioning too. I looked over to the side of the room and there was a whole long line of people waiting to audition. He gave me a big bear hug and said "Glad you made it. Help me with these guys here. I'll get to you later. Let's get to work." I was there and I pretty much didn't leave. That was on a Tuesday and on Thursday he gave me 20 seconds on my audition and goes ok let's get back to work. On Friday, he hired me and Vinny and Artie Barrow.
R.V.B. - That's amazing that you were there helping other people audition for the part that you wanted.
I.W. - Yeah, Yeah. That's what I was doing. That's pretty much the story on how I started out.
R.V.B. - So when you did finally get started. Were you preparing for a tour or the Joes Garage album?
I.W. - We were preparing for a tour.
R.V.B. - Where did that take you?
I.W. - We were preparing for my 1st world tour. This was starting in June of 78. We started out in Europe. We went everywhere in Europe... Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Spain, you name it. That was my first tour. We didn't do "Joe's" until we got back from the 2nd half of my first world tour... which was Europe and the States again. We got back in June of 79 and a week after we got back we started on what became the Joe's Garage sessions.
R.V.B. - Which was a lot of material.
I.W. - It was the material that we had already been playing on the last two tours. It just happened to be the stuff that ended up on Joe's Garage because it hadn't been recorded. This was all new material. Then Frank just got an idea in his head and said "I've got an idea. Let's try this." It was perfect. The timing ended up being just perfect. It was the first time he had a live band in the studio in like 8 years.
R.V.B. - Was working with Frank in rehearsals basically like a full time job?
I.W. - It was a full time job. In fact we used to have to punch a time clock. It was 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday, yes sir.
R.V.B. - So come 9 o'clock in the morning, you had your guitar on and you were ready to go.
I.W. - Actually it was 4 to midnight, but it was still 8 hours. When he walked in the door... guitars strapped up, tuned up... everybody's ready to go. We had gone over the stuff that we needed to go over for that day. At that Ed Mann was our clone-meister. Basically he was the student conductor. We'd go in and work on the stuff that Frank wanted us to work on and he'd come in from the house and start cracking the whip. That's how it always worked.
R.V.B. - On your first two world tour's... was there anything memorable that happened for you?
I.W. - Well tons of stuff. Tons of shows are memorable. My first show was in Albert Einstein's home town in front of 125,000 people. That's actually has to be a trick question.
R.V.B. - (hahaha)
R.V.B. - Did anything ever go wrong with your equipment?
I.W. - Well not with the equipment per say. There's been things that happened to the equipment. We did a show in Ahlen, Germany and Roy Buchannan was opening for us... and The Alarm. We didn't get on stage until like one in the morning. Then It started raining all over our equipment. That kind of thing... or the show in Chicago, when the day before Frank won the Grammy's, and Sting sat in the show with us. Somebody spilled a coke on our mixing console, from the balcony above and we had to get a new board. Things like that, but Frank was a very efficient guy. The crew was great... the equipment was great. He always made sure everything was in working order. He was a mad scientist. He took care of business.
R.V.B. - Obviously any recreational activity among band members was frowned upon.
I.W. - That was company policy. He goes "Now look, you guys are grown men... etcetera, etcetera, but don't let me catch you... don't come on my stage high." I could actually live with that. "If you're going to smoke weed, put a towel under your door and don't let me find out about it." Unless we were in someplace like Amsterdam where it's actually legal... because his main thing was "It's illegal. If you get caught with any of that shit, they're not going to say anything about you, they're going to say it about me." It was totally understandable. Besides, it just wasn't his thing and that was company policy. Who wants to get high and come on stage playing that much material.
R.V.B. - With every song, you have to have your wits about you.
I.W. - That kind of musical real estate is so unyielding, and is so full of musical information. I made the mistake of smoking a joint early in the morning the day of a show, and the stuff was so good I was still kind of toasted by show time that night. Man, I swore never to let that happen again. Trust me... I almost really screwed up a few parts bad. The thing is my job, as the front man was to remember all the material, and to remember the rhythm section parts, and to remember everybody's parts, and to keep everything on point. That was my job as the front man. Oh God, if Frank ever found that out, I'd of been dead. (haha) I was still a kid. I was like 20 - 21 years old, but I learned my lesson fast.
R.V.B. - You're thrown into a spotlight of big proportions and you've got a lot on your plate to remember.
I.W. - No Shit. It's so true man.
R.V.B. - (haha) Just for the record, I saw you for the first time in 1984 in Stony Brook.
I.W. - Oh my God, yes. Stony Brook was always a great place to play. We always loved to play Stony Brook.
R.V.B. - Yeah, right in the gym... which they don't have anymore.
I.W. - Really? They don't have the gym anymore?
R.V.B. - No. They built a new sports arena and they also build a performance theater. It's nice there now. It's not just like setting up chairs in a gym anymore.
I.W. - I used to love playing in that old gym. It was great.
R.V.B. - Many people have played there through the years.
I.W. - I played there when I was 20, with Frank.
R.V.B. - Any favorite songs that you like to play?
I.W. - Another trick question (Hahaha) You'll be hearing most of them when you hear and see us, when we get out there. I'm kind of spoiled with things like "Outside Now" and the stuff from Joe's Garage. I had to learn over 300 songs when I first joined the band... just to get ready for my first tour. There's so many songs and so much on my plate. There's tons and tons and tons of material. Half of the time, I don't remember certain tunes until I'm told "We're going to play such and such a tune." " Oh yeah, that tune... of course."
R.V.B. - (haha)
I.W. - Once again, It's been my job to learn and to know every tune. Right now people tell me "I know more Frank Zappa Tunes than anybody." That's probably true. I'll be 60 years old in November. I started when I was 20, and I'm going to have to say, I think I know more Zappa tunes than anybody, and I've recorded more Zappa tunes than anybody. That's only because of what my job description was.
R.V.B. - And you had a pretty long tenure.
I.W. - I've got the longest tenure. I was with him longer than anybody, but the main thing was, within my first 4 years in the band, Frank had me learn damn near every song that he ever wrote. I had that base covered... (Wow) the man was relentless. It was phenomenal, with just his sheer output.
I.W. - That's just it... exactly. All it could do was make me better.
R.V.B. - You're coming out with a book?
I.W. - Yes I am. I've already started on it and right now, I've got all of my chapters all set. I've got all of my interviews all done. My wife and I live in LA and were house hunting. I've got everything on my computer. I've got four computers just for the book alone. I've got everything ready to go. As soon as we get a new place and I have my office ready, I can unleash all of my stuff and get the writing process out of the way. It was supposed to be done this year but I'm on tour... I'm on the road... I'm trying to get a new place. I'm just a normal guy from the mid-west with a wife and two grown kids. I'm trying to get the domestic stuff out of the way so I can actually sit down and actually to the writing. The Ike Willis book will be out within a year, I promise you the book will be done.
R.V.B. - That's awesome. I'm looking forward to reading it and we're looking forward to seeing you in the northeast. Thank you very much for taking this time with me.
I.W. - You got it brother, I'll talk to you soon. When I get to Brooklyn, come and grab me.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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