Billy's Private Parts: A Few Words From Billy James

By Fred Tomsett

T'Mershi Duween, #31, June 1993

Billy James, as I'm sure many of you will remember from previous issues, is maybe better known as Ant Bee, and is currently recording material with several of the early Mothers. He has also worked for Frank Zappa as a copyist rather than musician, and appears briefly on Steve Vai's formidable 'Flex-Able'. He nobly agreed to undergo the TD grilling, and sent back a cassette with stacks of stuff on it, a lot of which went well beyond the realms of this mag. However, here are chunks of the FZ relevant sections.

Q: Tell us a little about your early musical history.

BJ: Oddly enough, my musical history began here in North Carolina where I'm recording this interview, some twenty odd years ago. I've come full circle (Billy had spent some time in LA) and I'm currently working with some of the musicians I began working with all that time ago. There's Rod Martin, the Mad Martian. I began working with him in various bar bands. I was drummer for him, playing a lot of cover garbage and some of his stuff in the clubs, not making hardly any money.

There's also Recurring Schizms, Scott Renfroe, that I started playing with at about age twelve, who was probably the first person I did any recording with. He's now opened up his own twenty-four track digital recording studio, the Sonic Café, and we're currently recording there. We spent four and a half months on 'Snorks and Wheezes', my newest extravaganza. He's an amazing engineer.

I'm also working with Peter Radloff. He's actually the first person who turned me on to the Mothers when I was about ten years old and the first person I ever jammed with. He's now my heavy metal guitarist on a couple of things here. Of course, I'm still working with Herman Monster and Bunk, Don, Jimmy and Motorhead, all of whom appear on 'Snorks'. Hopefully Roy Estrada will be doing some noises and other weird shit on the next song.

So, I started off in North Carolina, not doing much than playing in bars. I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston when I was eighteen, which was about 1978. I studied there for a number of years: arranging, harmony and ear training and percussion – pretty much everything you could imagine. It was an intense three years of learning music inside and out. There I befriended Steve Vai, who was a nobody at that point in time. We became very good friends. Our main point of interest was Frank's music. We were both Zappa fanatics. Even at that point, I knew and told him he was going to be successful, because you could just tell, but at the same token, he told me the same. Hopefully so. He was much different then to when I worked for him in California. It was like night and day.

I remember Steve had very little money when we were going to school, and he only ever had one light on, a little lamp in his whole apartment, so it looked like a dungeon. I also remember I used to open up the back door of a cafeteria at Berklee so he could get some food, because he couldn't afford dinner. While I was still going to school, he wound up getting the job with Frank and moved to California.

After Berklee, I flew out to California on Steve's promise and worked for him for a year, living on his floor, among the cats and the birds and the people who came by that year. I was doing chart work, ninety hours a week, and playing drums, just basically being a musical slave to the guy. You got to remember that I was twenty-two and I thought this was my big chance. So I was going to kiss the ass of my big opportunity. But you can only kiss so much. I did learn quite a bit from him.

After my little stint there, I got a gig with a band called The Shout who were a new wave band that was made up of two English blokes. We got a record deal with Mystic Records, which was produced by Doug Moody who put out the Lovin' Spoonful stuff and owned Buddha. We actually recorded the stuff in the same studio as where Bobby Fuller recorded 'I Fought the Law'. It was a famous little studio. The problem with that was that you have to remember that I was a drummer and percussionist looking for a gig. We played all over LA, and I just wanted to make a living at playing drums. I always composed and did stuff on my own, but I figured that my material was so avant garde and so different that it wasn't going to happen and I would make it as a drummer for some other creepy ensemble. The problem with the Shout was that the two other guys were heavy into chemical substances, to such a point that almost every deal we had was blown by these guys.

So I jumped that ship and ended up getting a job with Bob Harris, FZ's vocalist for a few years. He'd played with Warren Zevon and a band called Colorado. Bob's an amazing singer and one of the most amazing falsettos I've ever heard. He did some stuff on my record, but I haven't spoken to him in a few years which is kinda sad. I did some gigs with him and put out his first album, 'The Great Nostalgia', with people like Stuart Hamm, Tommy Mars and Steve Vai. Unfortunately, although we got some nice reviews, it didn't sell too well, and I guess a lot of people thought it too wish-washy, despite some great singing.

After that, I was working for this new age label. I was studying tablas, and I played on a few albums on this Innervision label. The music wasn't too bad, sort of progressive new age, but in the scope of things, it's mindless garbage. I waffled from band to band between 1980 and 1987. In 1987, I reached the lowest point of my career, when I played with this heavy metal band financed by the Kiss fan club. Peter Kriss had something financial to do with this thing. It was mindless glam garbage. That fell through too.

Now, I had received a four-track machine. Oh yeah, and during all these years, I'd been working on my text book, which is the most advanced textbook on rhythmic theory ever written. I can definitely say that. There's nobody's who comes close. Unfortunately, there's no publishing company that feels there would be much interest in it, because it is so complex, which goes to show the state of music and education of music in America and maybe everywhere else in the world. Serious music sucks in the world today, and I'm living proof of it. So, I started doing all my wild material onto reel to reel, while I was doing sessions and cocktail gigs. A lot of it wound up on the Voxx album and in England through Acid Tapes. It's amazing that someone is willing to release all the weird out-takes and stuff. I sent the demos to Voxx as a sort of joke, but Greg Shaw loved them and wanted to sign me.

Q: How did you get to work for Zappa?

BJ: I first met Frank in 1977 after a gig at Atlanta. It was as brief as could be. I shook his hand and said hello, and that was about it. It wasn't really until about 1980 that Zappa was looking for a copy of this ten record boot that someone had released, and I had quite an extravagant collection of recordings. Steve would borrow some of my tapes and he told Frank that I could probably get him the record. I did track it down for him. I went backstage at Rhode Island and 1980 and gave him the set, and also handed him some of my chart work. Steve was doing a lot of the transcriptions of the jams from the live shows, the spontaneous improvisations. Steve is probably the most amazing transcriber in the world. There are rhythms in this stuff that I cannot believe he could transcribe because they are so difficult and foreign to ninety-nine per cent of the musicians in the world. So he was feeding me some of these transcriptions. A lot of these polyrhythmic figures were so difficult that I developed a mathematical formula that demonstrated how these figures worked.

So I'd handed some of these charts to Frank, never expecting to hear from him. Then a few months later, I got a letter from him telling me how much he appreciated the charts. This lead to me doing some more charts for him which I guess he used to teach the band members how to play certain rhythms. He will often use some of the rhythmic figures to write things. A lot of the band members, even though they are excellent players and readers, could not understand how these rhythms worked. I remember doing some things like 'Stucco Homes' and 'Joe's Garage' and a few live things. So it wasn't really an awful lot.

The big story I remember was that Steve was up at the house one time. Frank had a bunch of file cabinets with charts in, some very early stuff, like the drum piece 'Mice' that Frank wrote as a kid, and he saw a couple of my charts in there which made me feel pretty neat at that time. I was happy about that. Frank is a genius; there can be no doubt about that. There is no other musician that can technically write like him. In my own opinion, I like the Mothers' material better than his later stuff, though all of it is excellent and performed with the highest of excellence. Conceptually, the early stuff is a lot more freaky and interesting, and what I'm in to.

There's a few things I remember. Going over to Frank's house one time, I went up with Vai at about three thirty in the morning. I think we'd been auditioning people all day long and recording with Dweezil. I have tapes of me and Steve and Dweezil jamming. Pretty awful, but I do have them. Frank had just finished the LSO tapes, and I'd brought up some new charts that he wanted to see. We listened to some of this stuff. Zappa hadn't shaved in a couple of days and had a full face beard, smoking ciggies and chucking down the Java. Gail had come up, and she's quite sizeable, if you know what I mean. When I was moving from the control room to the main studio, there's a very narrow passageway between the two. Unfortunately, Gail was standing there, and a stack of twenty-four track masters in cases, one of which was 'Uncle Meat'. I tried to get by her and it was such a small space, that I ended up kicking over some of the master cases. It was a very embarrassing moment. Steve and I lay on the floor listening to this LSO stuff, and Steve fell asleep, snoring. Frank came out, sat next to me and asked what I thought. I said I thought I had to go back and rehearse some more which cracked him up.

The last time I saw Frank I was invited to the 1988 rehearsals. It was pretty amazing. I sat and talked to him about possibly doing something with my book which he has endorsed, along with Chad and Don Preston, Chester Thompson, Steve Vai...

It's been quite a few years. The thing about Frank is that he's a business man. He's not someone you can consider a friend, although I'm sure he does have friends. You do what he wants you to do and that's it. He's always been very nice to me, very considerate and friendly. The learning experience I had with him was as much as working at Berklee.

But then, working with the original Mothers has been as much a learning experience. Working with Bunk and Don and Jimmy and Motorhead, and my tainted relationship with Ray, my favourite vocalist, has really shown who contributed what to the early Mothers records. Listen to the early Mothers albums and then the Flo and Eddie stuff; there is a big difference. I'm not saying it's better or worse, but the early stuff conceptually was the way I like to hear music. As far as the way I feel about the rift between Frank and the Mothers: it is sad that they have such feelings, but on the same token, those guys, in my own opinion, worked very hard for him for years. They were an integral part of the Mothers; it wasn't just Frank. He only really became successful after he broke up that original band. Once he broke them up, those poor guys scruffed. They didn't receive their performance royalties when the CDs came out. It's just sad. I can tell that, at least with Don and Jimmy, there's hurt and they were very close to Zappa for a long time. Those guys are the nicest people I've ever known. I have worked with a lot of people who have worked with Frank, like Tommy Mars, Vai, Ike and people of that nature. There's a vast difference between the people who worked with him after the Mothers and the Mothers themselves. The Mothers are very kind and respectful, and excellent musicians, not the duffs that Frank has lead everyone to believe. They are very intelligent and warm guys. I try to stay out of their problems, because it is a personal thing between them and him.

Working with the Mothers has been a dream. Those guys were my teenage idols. I had a big Mothermania poster up on my wall. I had all the recordings, even the European pressings. I thought they were the greatest. At one point, I wanted to be Frank Zappa's drummer. But playing for Frank is a very difficult thing, and Chad pretty much has that gig locked up. Now, I couldn't care about doing that, because the only thing that interests me is Ant Bee, because there are no other acts like Ant Bee. There is nobody else that comes close to what I'm doing.

The Grandmothers are touring now in Europe, or will be by the time this magazine comes out. Ant Bee were going to go over there, but it was too costly for the sources that wanted us to play. At the moment, I'm so involved with trying to record my next record, I don't really have a live ensemble together. I'm like Frank in that respect. My material is very complicated, most of it written out, and it requires an enormous amount of rehearsing, with hand signals and all that jazz, because I studied a lot of Frank's music. I know how he writes that shit. I utilise a lot of Mothers routine stuff in my act, though my influences go from Gong to the Monkees, to T. Rex, Alice Cooper, whatever. I'm not just a Mothers ape. 'Snorks and Wheezes', which features the Mothers and the other guys, will really make you flip, if you liked 'Lunar Egg Clips'. This is my grand hurrah to the Mothers. If you can imagine the Mothers went into Abbey Road studio in 1969 and were produced by George Martin, this is what it will sound like. It's a four part opera-type piece.

I formed Ant Bee in LA, with Roy Herman, a slew of bass players, and Greg Brosius, who is Lunar Egg Clips. We worked up quite a heavy live act, played a few shows there, but the scene is so shitty that nobody is interested in the Mothers. We did quite a few things in LA, including some recordings and the 'Girl with the Stars' video, filmed all round California. The guy who filmed it, Fred Gross, set me up with Bunk, and Bunk set me up with Don and Jimmy. The weird story about 'Lunar Egg Clips' is that Don, after Bunk had set it all up, had suggested to me that we get Ray Collins in to sing on it. As I've said, I've always been a big Mothers fan, but I did not ever set out to play with the Mothers. I hadn't even thought of them in a couple of years. The last thing I knew that Ray had done was the Geronimo Black album in 1973, when he also did some singing on 'Apostrophe'. Sadly I never got to talk to him about that. You have to catch him on certain days because he hates Frank and is very bitter about the Mothers of Invention...

But anyway. Bunk called him, and he said 'Yeah, Ray will do the lead vocals.' Now, picture what 'Lunar Egg Clips' would have sounded like with Ray singing the chorus to it. I was elated to be assured about this. I went to Malibu the next day and sat on the beach with 'Ruben and the Jets' and just freaked out. It was amazing. I always thought that this was going to be a one-time thing, and I didn't expect to eventually have contracts with all of them. Two days later, he calls me back, the day before the session, and says he doesn't want to do it, doesn't want to have anything to do with the Mothers. He says by me making a reunion of the Mothers, the ghost of Zappa will haunt the project forever and he doesn't want to have anything to do with it. I felt pretty bummed out by this. Then after this, the other Mothers warned me about Ray, but not before I talked to him. Still, the sessions were amazing, and after that, they set me up with Motorhead who also digs what I'm doing. Roy Estrada is also interested in letting me release the demos which he did in 1983. I have a nice connection with Cal Schenkel. There's gonna be a compilation CD which will feature rare material from all these guys and maybe Ray too.

So finally I left LA, because it was just hell to live there. I've relocated to North Carolina. The Mothers will be flying in for some recording. I've got musicians on both the East and the West Coast.

Q: What was it like working with Steve Vai?

BJ: I'm not going to rag on Steve, but he did put me through a lot of shit while I was living there with him, me being a twenty-two year old bright-eyed inexperienced kid, and he, knowing that I'd go to the ends of the world to work with him at that point, took advantage to a certain extent. I did record a lot of material for 'Flex-Able'. I did the first drum part for 'Little Green Men'. 'Bill's Private Parts' was originally called 'Pilot Light' which I recorded the second night I was in LA. It was a three minute drum solo which he then mixed up and edited to that fifteen second piece. I was the first drummer to work with Steve after he left Frank's employ.

At the time I was working with him, I got the impression that he thought he was Frank, and he was a bit dogmatic. I did lots of recordings, but we had a bit of a scuff. I decided I wasn't making enough money working with Steve, and I was offered the gig with Lisa Popeil, and he got very upset about this. In my opinion, that's why so much of my stuff was taken off the record. I'm sure he would say otherwise. I still have stuff with him. I think Steve's a great guitarist, one of the most technically proficient in the world. Musically, I don't think he's a very good songwriter, and an even worse singer. I haven't heard 'Passion and Warfare' and I don't really want to because I'm not interested in that Van Halen god type stuff. So, god bless the guy, he took his roads into the commercial vein, and made a lot of money. I think Steve's greatest stuff was when he was with Zappa, but in my opinion that material is probably Frank's weakest. Maybe it's because I know the guys who play on it and that can sometimes taint your opinions on their work. I did learn quite a bit from Steve, but he is a very strange character and I probably would not want to work with him again. Even if he offered to play with me, I doubt I would want to ever have him work with me. But you never know – he might ask, because 1993 is Ant Bee's year.

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