With the timing and exactitude that Frank Zappa demanded of Ike Willis during the course of his tenure with Zappa's strenuously rehearsed band (over a decade and a half, longer than any other musician that Zappa ever employed), you might assume Willis has maintained that rigid routine in the 16 years since Zappa's death. Given Willis' involvement with a variety of Zappa-centric outfits, primarily Andre Cholmondeley's equally exacting Project/Object, it's a fair assumption. So what is Willis' pre-tour routine as he prepares to hit the road for Project/Object's holiday tour?
"I fly into the airport," he says with a laugh. "I make sure that everybody has their parts down. Andre sets up the basic master list for each tour, and once everybody gets there, we all put in our two-cents' worth. It ain't like I don't know this stuff. Basically, I recorded most of this stuff, so I learned the original versions. You may not believe it, but it gets to be very contentious in rehearsal."
As proof, Willis opens Cholmondeley's e-mail with the band's holiday set list and is genuinely surprised at some of the choices, considering it's the first time he's laid eyes on the final list.
"Oh wow, something we haven't done in years — 'Little House I Used to Live In,'" says Willis admiringly. "That's from the day. The only person that I really saw pull that off was Tommy Mars. That and 'Envelopes' — he really used to tear those up. But he's a keyboard octopus."
Another old Zappa alumnus, singer-guitarist Ray White, is joining Project/Object's holiday circuit, and Willis couldn't be happier to be sharing a stage with his old friend again.
"As far as Frank is concerned, it was the '84 tour," says Willis of his last real gigs with White. "But he used to sit in with the old Project/Object nine years ago. Ray and I keep in touch just to see what the hell is going on. My son is his godson, and his son is my godson. It's a family thing. That's why we're known as the Othello brothers."
Willis is almost pathologically busy these days. He divides the bulk of his time between Project/Object, Bogus Pomp and Ugly Radio Rebellion. And that's not including a couple of distant Zappa tributes: the Central Scrutinizer Band from Brazil and Ossi Duri from Italy, although there are at least six other Zappa related bands that rely on Willis' expertise.
And whenever Willis can shoehorn in some additional time, he tries to devote attention to his own band, the Ike Willis Project. Willis has at least three albums worth of material written and ready to be recorded. His last solo album was 1998's Dirty Pictures, and his next is tentatively titled Things Are More Like They Are Than They've Ever Been.
"Andre and the boys surprised me and started working on a few of my tunes, like 'Bizness as Usual' and 'Andy Young' and 'Sleepy,' " says Willis. "And Ugly Radio Rebellion is starting to work on tunes from my two albums. It just brought a tear to my eye. I'm so honored that people want to start playing my stuff. It's starting to make its way up there. It's happening, which is pretty cool."
Until then, Willis will continue to present his portion of the Zappa legacy to existing and new generations of fans. To hear Willis describe his current activities, it seems like he's the human version of the bus in the action movie Speed. If he drops below 55 mph, he'll explode.