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 was one of the most engrossing that I have ever done, and here I want to apologise publically to my dear wife, who is always kind enough to transcribe the interviews. This chat was meant to last for 20 minutes, and instead rambled on for nearly an hour. Sorry dear.
We ended Part one of this interview by talking about the Ant-Bee modus operandi. How the various artists with whom he collaborates send him music, either by post or electronically, and then how he edits and moulds the performances..
Jon: That’s very much a 21st Century way of working isn’t it
Billy: It is. One of the Gonzo artists and he’s one of my music heroes – I am actually his personal publicist – is Jon Anderson who you recently spoke with, and I’ve been doing press for him for over a year now and that was somebody I wanted to work with since I was like 12, so it’s odd that after all these years I was finally actually able to start working with him and his last record was pretty much done that way. People would send him musical ideas and things through email – you know as MP3s – and then he would take that stuff for the most part and then sing melodies over the top if he liked them and started working from that. That’s how Survival was completely done, just about.
But anyways, getting back – you know when I originally started working with Jon I never even told him I was a musician because I mainly just wanted to be able to work with him – he is one of my musical heroes, next to Zappa who I was able to do some chart work for in the 80s, but it was a dream come true, and I also really hustled and got him a ton of publicity, and so he is very happy with my work, and it’s been great working with him. But through the grapevine, somehow he found out that I did music and so I sent him that Do you Like Worms piece which is the one you wrote the little thing up on the blog, so I sent it to him and the next thing I know, he asked me to sing background vocals for some of his pieces.
So I’m singing on Open which is the big 21-minute piece he released on his birthday past October. And then I did some background vocals to a piece that hasn’t come out yet called Spirit Grounding, which is a really wonderful piece, and right now I am doing some background pieces for Ever, the next piece that he’s working on, which is an acapella thing so I am working on that now, so that’s you know.
And that’s a dream come true, I never thought in a million years I would be singing background vocals for Jon Anderson. That’s what dreams are made of. And that all came through you know, just by working with him and then him finding out I do music and stuff, and that’s how a lot of musicians I wind up working with.
Jon: It’s a very exciting time to be alive because the internet and technology has opened up so many new opportunities for people
Billy: Yeah well it’s good and bad. I mean a good way is you can be an artist and in the old way you had to send out to a million of those – you know there used to be fanzines – remember there was like a million fanzines. I know England had a ton of them. I used to get all these different.....The Ptolomeic Telescope and Fish out of Water, I mean there was like a million of them. And that was the rave, sort of like in the late 80s/early 90s before the internet thing - now it’s everybody’s websites and blogs and those types of things. But that was the blog – the fanzine, you know but still it wasn’t that easy to get those things, and put the word out about your band.
You still had to send things out, but you were lucky if you got a little write up in a magazine, whereas now thousands of blogs and the internet sites – you know websites to review music and internet airplay and just so many places that you are able to send stuff to get reviews and this and that, there’s tons of them, and also you being an artist, it’s like now you’ve got a home base that you can work out of.
Anybody who’s an artist has a home base now where they can work out of and a person from Russia, Japan or China can just go right there and them and be able to find what they are doing. That’s the amazing thing. It wasn’t that easy before. Unless you were a big artist and you had a big publicist and for a small avant-garde artist like myself or other ones of the time – it’s so much easier. But on the other hand everybody and his brother has a record now.
So that’s the only thing. You’ve got to wade through the thousands of releases. There wasn’t as many music artists as there are now. I mean this is everybody.
Jon: I wonder if it is actually that there are more people now, or just that there always were these people and then the records they made wouldn’t have been heard beyond their immediate family or the people down the pub
Billy: It all comes down to money. They didn’t have the means to be able to record it and then to put the CD out or the vinyl, it was expensive, so that’s the thing. Now all you’ve got to have is a little CD dubbing player – just a computer that burns CDs. Then you just sit in a little recording unit and then programme in there and just about anybody and his brother can record a record and it sounds, for the most part, very professional sounding compared to having a one-mike sort of thing that people used to record on tape you know the reel whatever.
So I think it’s that .. Zoot Horn Rollo, who I did a book with – he was Captain Beefheart’s guitarist from the Magic Band.
Jon: I didn’t know you did that book
Billy: Yeah, it’s called Lunar Notes. Did you ever read that?
Jon: I’ve read bits from it. A friend of mine has got it.
Billy: Zoot Horn Rollo was telling me was that back in his day there were very few musicians so if you could play a guitar you could pretty much get a gig as opposed to now. There’s a zillion musicians out there. Back in those days there weren’t that many so when big professional bands were looking for players or whatever it was almost easier to get gigs, and the same with the songwriter.
You were able to actually able to walk into the office there, sit there with your acoustic guitar and sing to the guy your songs. And then record labels would actually front you up money to do demos. None of that stuff happens any more now – none of that. You have to have a complete finished product for the most part before a record label would even look at you or check it out, unless you were one of those big, huge band that had been out there for years. But for a new band.....forget it.
They don’t advance money – I would say 99% of them don’t, you know, unless you’re a well-known band. If you are a new band, you’re not going to get any advance money – they are going to want a complete finished product to put out.
And for today, that's it. We will be back tomorrow with part three..
...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.