Ex-Zappa Vocalist Discusses Politics Of Music Industry
By Dave Stanton
One look at Ike Willis and you know he means business. Thick, wiry hair explodes from his head and darts straight back as if propelled by a jet stream. His light brown skin seems barely able to contain the barbell biceps; and when he opens his mouth, a booming tenor with a built-in echo burst out.
In the fine tradition of gentle giants, however, Willis proves a warm, enthusiastic man.
He is a teddy bear, perhaps, but a vivacious one. His desire for quality, one soon discovers, knows no bounds.
“In terms of business. I want control,” Willis asserts, rapping fist into palm. “I’ve learned it’s got to be that way.”
Of course, four years with Frank Zappa would put a shine of intensity on anyone. Willis was only 21 when the mustachioed maestro plucked him out of Washington University in St. Louis, and flew the guitarist to Los Angeles for auditions.
“When you get musicians at such an early age as Frank does, it’s still classroom,” Willis explained. “He took me out of college and put me back into college. We called it Zappa University.”
Willis, 27, sees his concern for quality as a practical one; a guarantee of income as well as a musician’s aesthetic ideal.
“When the Reaganomics kicks in, it’s going to get really tight,” Willis said. “The big money is going to go to the hands that know what they’re talking about.”
For that reason, Willis rehearsed his new quintet, The Rugs, for a solid six months before debuting it at Bovard Auditorium Saturday night. With his Negro Records label now established and his band humming along smoothly, Willis at last feels ready to sign a distribution deal with a major record company.
“It’s consistency that wins the ballgame, that blows up the bridge every night," he said. “We’ll never have to rehearse for six months again because everybody’s got it down, and now it’s just like osmosis.”
Despite his aggressiveness, Willis does not want to acquire Zappa’s “temperamental maestro” reputation.
“(Zappa’s taste) depends on the sound he’s looking for, and some people take it like an attack on them,” Willis said.
“Frank is like the Maytag repairman: he’s the loneliest guy in town because everyone’s afraid of coming to his door.”
“I’ve been fired by him three times and it’s no big thing.”
Musically, Willis simply wants to be one of five equals. A strong leader, he says, is only necessary in business matters.
“It is the input from each band member that allows the good chemistry to keep bubbling on,” he said. “What we have here is a bunch of people ... who see totally eye to eye on a fresh outlook to performing music.“
That feeling, Willis says, is worth waiting for and sticking with indefinitely.
“I’m willing to wait for as long as I’ve got enough money to pay the rent. That’s part of the whole deal I signed up for when I was eight years old and decided to be a guitar player.”
“All I’ve ever been into is giving people their money’s worth.”
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