Thursday teatime I did one of the most intriguing interviews of my career so far. I spoke to Billy James, who - apart from being the main publicist with whom I have been dealing in recent months, is also main man of Ant-Bee - perhaps the most singular artist on Gonzo (and that is up against some stiff competition). The interview went on for nearly an hour, and so far is on the third day.
Part one of this interview
Part two of this interview
Jon: I was really impressed with the Electronic Church Musik album. I was wondering, what came first, the songs or the concept?
Billy: As you know, again it was 10 years in the making .... actually the concept came first. I had the concept of doing something in the lines of how Brian Wilson did Smile and just did a sort of spiritual, religious sort of trip, but it evolved. When pieces came in a lot of it was how is this going to fit in? And this one’s not going to because of the theme of it all.
How does it fit in, whether by a word, or a passage, something’s got to be something to relate to each other. And I had ideas and then again once you start recording and executing the ideas, they never come out exactly the way you want them to be, you know. I grade them on a scale, I remember Zappa saying that’s the way he would do it. He would grade it on a percentage scale. I remember him going through some of the early Mother songs and say well this one was 70% correct to my specifications, and this one was only 60% you know.
And none of them are 100% so you go through them and listen to them and this and that and you take them in and out and see if they’re good enough and interchange or whatever and I had all these years to do, I wasn’t under the gun just finally a little label came to me and said hey we will press up this amount of CDs and give you this amount of an advance and I said, what the hell, you know. Island Records isn’t going to come back to me, which is one thing. I was approached by Island Records out of England when my first record came out in 1989 and the head A & R rep really loved my stuff and I stupidly, instead of .... I was working on newer, more – I wouldn’t say commercial – but probably more not as avant-garde as my first album, but stupidly I sent in my first record and not the new tracks so she writes back and says well I loved it and wanted to sign you but couldn’t get anybody else here as excited. And that was my chance with Island Records over there in England and that would have been great if I had gotten signed.
If I had gotten over there back in the day I think I would have been much more popular. There’s no question about it. If I had moved to England and I didn’t, I stayed in LA, I should have moved to England and continued Ant-Bee there, and I think ... remember Bevis Frond? He was real popular.
Jon: He’s another old mate of mine
Billy: Just around the time he did, and there was another one, the Porcupine Tree guy
Jon: Steven Wilson
Billy: Right. I remember those guys were starting around the same time as I was. But I am just so avant-garde. I always got praise and cheers and a lot of .... but never really took off in that sort of that sort of big direction because you’re just too far out, your music is just too weird and far out. This is just the way I am, and my music, and it’s just the way it’s always going to be. It’s never going to be any different.
Jon: I was just thinking as you were saying that, that if Brian Wilson subtitled Smile, `A Teenage Symphony to God`, yours is a Middle-age Symphony to God.
Billy: Yeah, there you go.
Another guy who started out at the same time as me was Hans Zimmer – now he does all the soundtracks and stuff like that. Now I’ve been sidetracked because Jon Anderson has me doing vocal stuff for him which is very difficult. That’s the other thing, it takes hours of rehearsing to it and, you know, it’s trying to sing behind Pavarotti or something. You know, he’s just like amazing, and I don’t claim to be that type of a vocalist. I’m more like a Beatle-type of singer, a John Lennon-like singer, not like an opera singer like Jon sort of is, so that takes hours and typically I have to transcribe the words and the notes and all that.
I just get it as an mp3 and then I have to transcribe it back and the notes and rehearse on it and this and that, you know. And over and over again. It takes a long time, but other than that I have been actually working on an odd project which is a jazz fusion-type record Ant-Bee style. I really like Miles Davis and Weather Report and that type of stuff and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and I love that fusion type stuff as well, you know the jazz fusion of ’73, ’74 and ’75 you know, those years, and so I’ve been working on this piece that has Bunk and Don and Napoleon – a lot of the Mothers on it. It’s sort of like an Ant-Bee jazz fusion record, I don’t know how to explain it.
But it will be very avant-garde, I don’t know if it will ever come out, but it’s something I’ve been working on. And then I have some extra pieces I did with David Allen that he sent me, kind of like a David Allen EP of him and Gilli that I’ve been working on as well and I don’t know if that will ever come out either.
But I’ve got other projects lined up that I’m working on, but we’ll see.
And so we continue tomorrow with an unprecedented Part Four...
...BECAUSE SOME OF US THINK THAT THIS STUFF IS IMPORTANT
What happens when you mix what is - arguably - the world's most interesting record company, with an anarchist manic-depressive rock music historian polymath, and a method of dissemination which means that a daily rock-music magazine can be almost instantaneous?
Most of this blog is related in some way to the music, books and films produced by Gonzo Multimedia, but the editor has a grasshopper mind and so also writes about all sorts of cultural issues which interest him, and which he hopes will interest you as well.