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 this is the fourth and final day.
Part one of this interview
Part two of this interview
Part three of this interview
Jon: When you approach somebody to appear on one of your songs, how much of a remit do you give them? Or do you just give them the title and let them know what it’s about or do you just let them do what they want and then you manipulate the sounds?
Billy: It depends. Like when I had Michael Bruce here I would bring him into the studio and make him do pieces and parts that I did and the same with Bunk Gardner. Or I’d have an idea and say `hey Don can you send me some Moog weird sounds like a brontosaurus crashing into a building or something`. I give him the general idea.
Other pieces for instance Jan Akkerman’s piece he sent me and Peter Banks, I used one piece, but he actually sent three pieces – another two pieces I haven’t had the chance to work on. He had sent me pieces that he had done that were never out on anything so it’s a combination and then a lot of the stuff is combinations of where I will have a piece, you know a sax line that I got from Bunk.
That I recorded back in LA that I’ll fuse on to a slowed down background rhythm guitar piece that I’ve gotten from Michael Bruce from the ‘70s to a lead line that I had Don Preston do recently and I Frankenstein – everything together, so everything is pretty much Frankensteined and the whole record is like a Frankenstein type of a piece where I’ve taken snippets and snatches and things from all types of different eras and mix them all together.
For instance that song 'Living;, that sax solo in the middle of it and the guitar solo are from completely different saxes from the ‘90s and the guitar’s from the late ‘90s from Michael Bruce. So there are different solos from almost ten years apart that I fused together and somehow they work.
Zappa did a lot of that stuff, particularly in the end days – I forgot what he called it – but he would take drum tracks. You know he recorded everything live so he would take drum tracks from one live show, and then take a guitar solo from another show and fuse it on top of it, and it would work and sometimes they would both be in completely different time signatures. But somehow it worked. And I always found that fascinating – a lot of it is a game of chance, as well, you are doing experimenting. But some of the things that you do but it is almost impossible to recreate it again.
The magic is also in the mixing. It’s almost the way like which Jimi Hendrix did the Electric Ladyland 1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be) ; there was like a live mix at the time so there was so many different mixes of it. So it’s almost an art-form of just the mixing itself, you know. I don’t have anything electronic, it’s not programmable and I still have to do it by hand – a lot of this stuff – and that’s the art to it, you know. You get a magic in the mixing.
Jon: How did the Ant-Bee project start off in the beginning?
Billy: What happened was that originally I was back in the late ‘80s, I mean I am pretty much a trained drummer/percussionist and I graduated out of Berkeley College of Music, which is a well-known music school up in Boston, Massachusetts and I moved out to Los Angeles in 1983 to work with Steve Vai. He was a guitar player who worked for Zappa back in the early ‘80s and I actually befriended him in Berkeley at the music school.
He got the gig with Zappa and he moved to Los Angeles and then when I graduated out of Berkeley he said come on out and do some recording with me. I was 22 years old and I drove out there from Los Angeles to Selma, California. This was before Steve Vai had his first record out or anything; he was really pretty much unknown other than he was playing guitar with Zappa at the time.
So I moved into his house and I did some chart work for Steve and then I played some drum parts for his first record, Flex-Able, which came out and is actually a pretty well-known album and through Steve I met Zappa and that’s how I was able to do some chart work for him, and because he knew I knew a lot about rhythm.
Actually I wrote a text book on rhythm that never came out, but it has an endorsement from Steve and Zappa and Chester Thompson and Bill Bruford and Jan Akkerman and a slew of people, but – oh and Robert Fripp endorsed it and also gave me the title to the book, but because it is so complex I could never find a publishing company to put it out and so it has laid dormant for 30 years.
So through Steve and Zappa and all that stuff, and I was working with him and I started working with Bob Harris who was Frank Zappa’s singer, so a lot of the Zappa guys I started working with once I moved out to LA, and then I did a lot of drum stuff. Just a lot of drum stuff, I really didn’t do a lot of my own stuff until my brother one day gave me a four track reel to reel and so I started experimenting with it. It was probably 1986 at the time. I started experimenting with tapes and this and that and backwards tracks. I was so fascinated with it and I started editing it and I was so very much into Frank and his whole thing about editing and musique concrète and so I started putting pieces of music together.
I was always a big Beatles fan – I always sang and had a good voice. I was always singing Beach Boys stuff and was able to almost imitate. I was really a good imitator of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and stuff. Even back before I ever recorded stuff I used to sing to their stuff so much and again I played with an English band called The Shout and did EPs and a bunch of garbage pretty much.
I was experimenting with this tape recorder; I put together a sort of psychedelic Beach Boys/Beatles/Pink Floyd/Syd Barrett type recordings. Very low budget demos, because it was like a cheap – reel to reel was only a quarter inch – the sound was horrible and I had no equipment of really doing any effects so much other than a really cheap reverb unit. And then there was like one big psychedelic kind of a weird label out of LA that was very well-known and I don’t know how I had got the idea to send something to them , I’m not really sure, but it was Bomp Records. Have you ever heard of them before?
Jon: Yes....is that Greg Shaw?
Billy: Yeah Greg Shaw, he’s the one. I don’t know what prompted me to do it, but I sent the tapes to Greg Shaw. Next thing I know, I get a ‘phone call saying ‘oh these things are just amazing blah blah blah. I want you to come down to my office, I want to sign you.’ No I wasn’t on Bomp I was on Voxx – like a division of Bomp, and I was one of the only acts - if not the only one - that he financed the recordings.
He loved my stuff so much he paid for all the recordings for the record and put out the first Ant-Bee record which got just tons of press and like I said, Island Records came to me and EMI. Now I can barely listen to it – it’s such an amateurish piece of garbage, but people seemed to love it and that’s first album syndrome. You know, it’s like kindergarten as opposed to electronic music which is like college. That’s the difference. Have you ever heard it? I should send it to you some time. Rob’s releasing all of it.
It’s very psychedelic it’s like a lost Syd Barrett type of a record. No real guest stars on there, it’s got Bob Harris on there. It was sort of promoted on my own. But it became like a cult classic – it was weird, it really took off in the Underground, particularly in England – they loved me over there. And then I got signed to this next label. He put out a bunch of stuff like Gong – he did Hatfield and the North and a bunch of the mid-prog bands which I like them all, but I love Gong. I’m a huge Gong fan. On Lunar Muzik I think the piece I do with Daevid Allen, it’s a long glissando piece and he loves it. He gave me a really nice compliment on it and I think you’d really like that if you like Daevid Allen – it’s a long meditative glissando thing on Lunar Muzik.
Jon: It was Daevid Allen who first introduced me to Rob.
Billy: Wow, really. It’s funny because Rob wanted to release my stuff many years ago. I just wanted too much money – he didn’t want to pay for it.
At any rate, that’s how the first record came to be and took off and then I wound up meeting the Mothers members and then I started getting involved with them, and that’s how the second record – it’s a document of my meeting and working with the original Mothers members and that’s what the Vegetables record pretty much is all about. I was just so into that. Like I said it’s best when you maybe hear them and we can talk about them.
Jon: If you could let me have copies that would be lovely....I noticed your Beatles harmonies
Billy: I wanted to be a Beatle which is funny ‘cos so did Jon, so did Peter Banks so did Greg Lake – everybody I worked for and they all wanted to be a Beatle – everyone wanted to be a Beatle and I wanted to be one too
Jon: They were the best, and you always aspire to be the best
Billy: I wanted to be one from 1968 on, you know. I knew what I wanted to be so my singing, it was always reflective of ...anything was reflective of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and a little Pink Floyd in there, but that’s because I don’t really have the range of singing. I am not a scream singer; I’m not like Paul Rodgers or Roger Daltrey. I can’t sing like that.
Like Brian Wilson, I can’t sing up in the stratosphere like him either, I’m more of a middle sort of crooney type of voice, that’s just the way I sing. There’s only so much new material you can sing that way. I couldn’t sing funk let’s put it that way. I love Peter Gabriel – I’d do anything to be able to sing like him, but there’s no way. Just the way I do it, you have to do a lot of harmonies and do it the old style Beatles/Beach Boy type of singing.
Jon: I think it sounds more like the Revolver era of Beatles harmonies. It’s got the She said, She said sort of vibe to it.
And there, it ended. Actually it didn't, but the next ten minutes were taken up with us chitchatting about mutual friends and acquaintances, and various bits and bobs about work. Thanks Billy, I enjoyed that and look forward to doing it again soon..
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