GIVE IT TO ME BABY, LIKE BOOM-BOOM-BOOM
Now I’ve known André Cholmondeley of Project/Object fame for around 10 years and, although I kinda interviewed him a few years ago back in Germany, I thought it was about time I had a longer natter with him from the comfort of my armchair. So, just ahead of what promises to be a truly wondrous tour (check www.projectobject.com for more), here we are:
When we first met in
2002, you surprised me by recognising my Dennis The
Menace pin badge. For the folks out there, tell us about your early years.
I was born in British Guiana on 9 February 1965. I grew up there from age five to ten, but at three months old thru five, I lived in Chicago in the Unites States. So my young reading years included highway signs in Chicago, then later British comics and books – stuff like Enid Blyton, Tintin, Astérix & Obélix, Stories For Boys, the little war comic books, etc.
Going to early forms and then Queens College for a year also gave me that English style education, for better or worse – uniforms, canings, headmasters, a real serious curriculum. Growing up in the Caribbean/former colony which was now Guyana, added to the interesting mix – the country was and still is about 40% African and 40% Indian descent, the rest being English, Portuguese and other European, so I heard music from all around, as well. I especially remember, on the radio, hearing Lata Mangeshkar and other Indian music, as well as very early Bob Marley. My dad had a fantastic collection, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Simon & Garfunkel, Last Poets, Isaac Hayes, Bobby Goldsboro – the album cover of Miles’ Bitches Brew fascinated me, as did the music.
The Shadows with Cliff Richard was a major fave – and that REALLY made me fall in love with the sound of guitar at around age six or seven. I LOVED, and still love, the sound of those records, wow!
So we have good old
Hank B to thank. When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?
Besides The Shadows...it was later, at age 17. After I failed out of my first year of college, in 81-82. I was dispatched to live with my dad, who lived in Jamaica at that point, and to study all summer for my triumphant return to school. Instead...I picked up the classical guitar and piano that my aunt had at the house. Immediately I knew it was for me. Seventeen was kind of late, so I’m still trying to catch up.
When did you first
hear Frank’s music?
Part one was...sometime around the late 70s...on the radio, maybe Dr. Demento with Yellow Snow or Dinah-Moe. And then certainly, Top 40 Radio when Dancin’ Fool was a hit. I remember hearing that on rock radio – loving the rock sound and the humour of it – but distinctly realising “Whoa, this guy has a whole other thing going on...the xylophone, etc.”
Part two was at age 16, attending Rutgers University in New Jersey. A fellow destined-to-fail-out engineering student, Mike Serlenga, said “Hey, wanna smoke a joint?” which we rapidly repaired to his dorm room to do. Then he said “Check this album out!!” and put on Zoot Allures. I can still picture that album cover, and that little room where my brain, musical world, and life changed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I mean, I was relatively familiar with some wild stuff – lots of rock, funk, prog and some fusion – but this was a whole other level: the editing, the guitar playing, the diversity... unreal. That album STILL blows my mind.
Yep, that is a good
In the following weeks, I set about getting EVERY Zappa release I could buy new or used, or yes, borrow and record onto cassette (remember when THAT was supposed to have killed music?). Also at Rutgers the radio station WRSU would do an all day Zappa special on Halloween, so I made maybe eight or 10 hours of cassettes. On that same day – my first Halloween as a Zappa freak – was the famous Palladium/MTV/Westwood 1 broadcast. So. I taped it while listening live.
I love the story Keneally tells – of listening to that, they go into Montana, then Vai is doing the written unison/melody thing, and Mike said something like “...WTF, this guy is playing it on guitar!”. That show is still epic for me, because, again, I had just gotten into Zappa heavily over the previous two weeks! I still watch the video all the time. Alien Orifice, Halloween 1981, that is a desert island Zappa track for me. The band is insane on that – all of them. That is some difficult shit. I mean – Inca Roads and Black Page are what many people usually think of as ‘hardest stuff in the world’. Very hard tunes to play, but this is a whole other level of impossible. The main melody is completed demented, then there's the written stuff that flies by after Frank's solo. The solo this night is simply epic. The guitar tone and the whole over the top flanging and modulation effects, wow.
As a student of effects and everything technical, I'd urge people interested in his FX to seek out the interviews Frank gave about the custom FX he had, the CV control of parameters he was doing waaaaay before MIDI was used as a control protocol. I mean MIDI was only two or three years away in terms of being in devices, but full on control of effects changes, layering, and things like phaser depth, sample and hold etc., Frank was doing this stuff for years at the point of this concert, and had it down. His playing was on a whole other level in that 79-82 period, followed on by 84 and 88. While I love what he does in 1984, there's a bit less soloing on that tour, pound for pound, than the glorious-for-Zappa-solos 88 tour. Besides, the 84 band provides far less of a lush background for the guitar.
Anyway, I’m guessing it’s unique, that within two weeks of hearing one of his albums I had TONS of Zappa material, from Mothers stuff all the way up to a live broadcast that just happened, and hours of very mixed up ‘Zappa radio’ programming.
different from my slow burn initiation. How
did you wind up in NJ?
My parents were divorced in 73 or so, I moved to Brooklyn NYC in 1976 with my Mom & sister, then in 1978 with our stepfather we moved to Hazlet NJ, where I completed high school, then went to Rutgers University, also in NJ.
I understand. Okay,
so when did you decide to form the ultimate tribute band, Project/Object?
Somewhere around 1990. I would hold these parties at my apartment, starting in 1988 or 89. It would be TWENTY FOUR hours of Zappa, that was the rule straight away. So even when you fell asleep there was some tape or video going...people would drop by throughout the day and night.
By then I had just about every Zappa release available, and many bootlegs, a few videos. I also would put out for perusal, all my Zappa cover-story magazines, tour books and and The Real Frank Zappa Book, which some unknown bastard stole from one of these parties! It's literally priceless, as I had Frank sign it not once but twice, at a couple of book signings...people would be reading, fascinated that this whole alternate world had been created by one man.
What I noticed by the second year is that people always had similar questions and comments: “What album is this?”, “Wow, I didn’t know Zappa had horns, or instrumental, or funny, or orchestral, or percussion etc., in his music”, “I didn’t know so-and-so played with Zappa!”, etc. So what was clear was that a lot of people had heard this guy’s name, seen the classic face, of course the nonsensical Alice Cooper shit and eat contest story was in extra high rotation back in the 80s. But most had NO idea of the scope of his work, the diversity, the sheer...AMOUNT of music there was. And this in the early 90s when there really wasn’t yet the huge re-issue of Zappa stuff on CD. So right away I thought “We must tell the people!! Zappa Music!!”
At the time I was in a band – Zen Pajamas – and we did a couple of Zappa tunes, something easy like Dirty Love and, shockingly, a pretty decent Zoot Allures.
By about the third year of having my Zappa party, I was renting a bigger house with a basement and the band learned a bit more Zappa and played at the party: it went over fantastically, so the next year it was an expanded band, many more songs, keys, horns, etc. At that point I realized I had a new band. We did our first in a series of ‘Zappa Birthday Party’/21 December gigs at a place called the Court Tavern in New Brunswick NJ, as Project/Object.
How did you manage to
get Ike and Napi involved?
Ike I’ve known since 1984, and we stayed in touch after the Zappa tours were over in 1988. When I saw him at a Banned From Utopia show in about 1995, I told him I had a band. He said, “Send me a tape”. A few weeks later he called and said “Book some gigs. Fly me out there, I’ll whip you boys into musical shape and we’ll hit the road”.
Napoleon Murphy Brock, I first contacted through Jerry Outlaw (Bogus Pomp), around 2001. Jerry and I had been friends for a while at that point and would kind of network with a few of the alumni. With the help of Matt Ross (who ran the biggest rock station in NYC at that point, and went on to be School Of Rock CEO for several years), we did a big cancer benefit in NYC, Halloween 2001, where we sold out Irving Plaza (about 1100 people) and raised over $10,000 for prostate cancer research, appropriately. But that was the first time we worked with Napoleon.
I called him up and he was on. This was also our first day working with Don, Bunk, Roy, Billy Mundi. Immediately after this show I went out with the Grandmothers on tour, as their driver, tech and tour manager. The background was that I met Ike, Bobby and Scott pre-show at the 16 August 1984 show at Jones Beach/Wantagh NY. They were just chilling out in the crowd by the merch area, this must have been an hour or two before showtime. Not a big deal, just a fanboy handshake sort of “You guys are great!!” and some small talk.
I had seen my first Zappa show, from about the fourth row, days earlier. It was 13 August 1984, Garden State Art Center in Holmdel NJ. Then I saw them again at Halloween 84 in NYC, then in 1988, eight or ten times. At those shows in general all the band members would come out to meet the fans pretty quickly post-show, so I would say hi and shake some hands, get stuff signed and tell the band how awesome they were. I think on the opening night of the 1988 tour (Albany) I met Keneally, Bobby, maybe Ed Mann, and again Ike, who by now I had hung out and rapped extensively with. In the 90s after Zappa stopped touring, Ike and I stayed in touch by phone a couple of times a year.
You’ve now played
with quite a number of Frank’s former sidemen - are there any you’re keen to
add to the extensive list?
It’s really an honour to have not only met most of the key sidemen, but to have played with so many of them. A labour of love. Sure, we’d love to do something with any and all of the alumni out there, but especially people like Tommy Mars, Ruth Underwood, George Duke, Scott Thunes, Tom, Bruce and Walt Fowler, Eddie Jobson, Adrian of course.
Shankar is high on my list. He’s great. But you know, if it all ended tomorrow – what a run! Ike Willis, Ray White, Ed Mann, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Denny Walley, Don Preston, Bunk Gardner, Bob Harris, Thana Harris have all toured or done parts of a tour with us. And Mike Keneally, Jimmy Carl Black, Arthur Barrow, Roy Estrada & Candy Zappa have all sat in multiple times. Robert Martin played with us at Zappanale 2009. Al Malkin, Miss Pamela and Bruce Bickford have been onstage to add to the madness with characters, dancing or poetry. We’re proud to have performed in front of Bob, Jason, Carl and Candy Zappa – that’s the highest honour, to have them as friends and supporters. The rest is gravy.
Another thing I love to do is invite other interesting guests, that might not have played with Zappa but love his music and bring their own unique voice to the celebration – so our special guests have included Ed Palermo (fellow Zappa-repertoire band-leader), Gregg Bendian, Jimmy Wilson, Joe Deninzon, Adam Holzman (Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter), David Fiuczynski, Gary Lucas (Capt Beefheart, Jeff Buckley), Jon Fishman (Phish), Glenn Phillips (Hampton Grease Band, Henry Kaiser) Jim Loughlin, Al Schier and Chuck Garvey (moe.), Elliott Levin and a few others I’m sure.
Lucas of course
appears on the sole Project/Object Zappa CD, Absolutely Live.
Will that ever be available again? And are there any plans to release more FZ
material from the archives?
Indeed. Always a trip to work with Gary, he’s a character, as you would have to be, to be part of Beefheart’s history.
Who knows about that CD. It was done legally and then the record company, Phoenix, went under. Too bad, they had some great artists on there including a great CD of unreleased Tubes material. Maybe naming your company Phoenix was bad luck. But in any event, if we ever release any Zappa music I’d like it to represent a newer line-up, and have some kind of special reason. There’s SO much of the actual authentic Zappa that still needs to circulate, why add to it, in a way.
Twenty years of
Project/Object seems pretty special, André! And some of us just can’t get
enough. Okay. Any alums you really would prefer not to
No problems there! I’m a big fan of all of them. I am certain there are some that won’t wanna play with US, or that prefer to never play “stuff from the past” as it were, but, no, I have a cheery outlook towards all the people who recorded and toured with Zappa, and I actually love to check your site for the MOST obscure activity any of them may be involved in! I love it!
I’ve had conversations with Andre Lewis, Adrian Belew, Alan Zavod, Jeff Hollie and certain others about doing something – they’ve all expressed interest and it’s all about timing, schedules, etc. So stay tuned!
I was surprised to
learn that Roddie Gilliard
of the Muffin Men had not played every concert they’ve ever done (he was ill on
tour somewhere in Europe and missed one show). Have you ever missed a
No, I have not missed any Project/Object gigs – but with all the mortality around me, and even before, I would say “What happens if I check out early?” I would hope that the band continues, but there’s an insane amount of background work that each tour requires that make it much less glamorous than people think. Not complaining – I love the planning and prep aspect of it but it’s amazing in its scope. I did do a “Project/Object Acoustic w/ Ed Mann” show with the flu that was a close call, I crawled onstage....so yeah, I’ve done every gig since our first one in about 1990.
Do you think ZPZ has
helped create a new audience for Zappa music?
I think they have, indeed. With all due respect, I think Dweezil makes too much of the idea that “virtually no young people listened to, or knew about Frank’s music” until ZPZ came along. I think my band, as well as Bogus Pomp, and Ed Palermo and the countless Zappanale bands, have surely introduced this music to a lot of young people. I know this because I’ve attended these shows and seen the audiences, years and years before ZPZ.
But it’s great that ZPZ is bringing the music to some great festival audiences, and certainly to some fantastic, amazing sounding rooms so that these young fans can hear this music sounding great live. They’re a great band – as you know I’ve seen them twice, two shows marred by some unnecessary drama. But the band sounded good, and like most fans I’ve seen the DVD and many YouTubes. Always great performances.
I know it’s controversial to say, but, like HUNDREDS of fans have told me in person – they play the notes, but there is some kind of energy, vibe, groove missing. They do nail that “Zappa vibe” from time to time...much less so with no alumni there, but in general it seems a little clinical. I’m not saying MY band nails that vibe every day, every show either but I feel that fans want the players from the albums. Again – fantastic, amazing players, all of ZPZ. They are indeed creating some new fans, especially when they open for a very different band, as they did with Dream Theater or this year’s planned Return To Forever support slot.
When did the ZFT
start to take note of Project/Objects’s activities?
It seems like it was from before it was called the ZFT. I have an envelope full of letters somewhere. I should really put them all online in an archive of some sort. I think the very first letters were simply from Gail, or a lawyer writing on her behalf.
It would be
interesting to read them, but would probably wind up causing you an even bigger
headache. What I find a real shame is that anyone should be so
hostile towards such a sweetheart as yourself. Indeed, all of the cover band
people I meet are great and only in it for the music.
At the Roundhouse, Mrs Z seemed a nice approachable sort: it’s just a shame the two of you can’t sit down and have a chin-wag: a nice cup of tea would sort it out, I’m sure.
We talked about including your story on the PMRC banner you took along to one of the Broadway shows in my Hard Way book, but issues in your private life meant we never did find the time. Would you care to relay that now?
On 6 February 1988, I saw my second Zappa gig. We went to two shows on that Beacon Theatre, NYC run. After the show, behind the venue with about 20 fans, I got to meet Frank for the first time, shake his hand and actually say hello to Gail, who stood there saying hi to fans, with a cute, shy little smile. My image of her was actually great until the lawsuits.
I said to Frank, “We’re bringing a sign to the DC show, a sign about Ed Meese!” Frank turned and looked right at me, gave a thumbs-up and a huge grin, and said “Make it a BIG one!!”
So 8 February, Warner Theatre show...it was after the first encores. My friend Dave Winsor and I ran up to the front, Ike waved the security to let us get close. Dave had a plastic ten-gallon contraption that we had rigged up and decorated to become the ‘Krypton Gas Venter’ (a reference to the song Venting The Krypton Gas on Ike’s then brand new solo LP). He handed it up to Ike and I gave FZ the, indeed, BIG SIGN, which had on it new meanings for PMRC. Stuff like “Plook Meese’s Rotting Cornhole”, “Pathetic Moron Record Censors” etc...Frank took it and read the entire thing, pausing to crack up a bit.
It will always be, of course, the pinnacle moment in my personal Zappa fandom. I mean, how can I ever top that one, actual conceptual continuity insertionism? Having Frank laugh and include us in the show, wow. Still blows my mind. I recently got a copy of the show, where anyone can hear the whole event right before Strictly Genteel.
Yes, that’s great. I
mentioned your personal problems: are you happy to talk about the recent
bereavements you’ve suffered?
Well, it’s an ongoing story I suppose. I was barely starting to cope with the sudden and shocking loss of my mother in July 2009, when Cheri passed away in August 2010. It’s unthinkable, really, to lose the two closest women in your life in a 13 month period. I have a hole blown out of me, in many ways.
On the other hand, losing my mother first did prepare me a bit for dealing with the incredible pain of grieving and knowing you have to face it head-on, let the pain happen but also cultivate the other parts of your life if you choose to continue on this earth. They were both incredibly supportive of my musical life, and I know they would cheer me on to keep playing, not only the Zappa-based project but also my various original music ventures.
I’ve had some very difficult times lately, dealing with the double loss, especially Cheri, as we had spent over twenty years together – it’s literally a physical loss, very disorienting. But MUSIC really has been amazing in its capacity to be a therapy; I’m shocked, even though I’ve SAID that countless times, you really find out in times like this, and your instrument can be a portal to some really deep travel. Listening to a lot of music, as well.
I am working on a couple of releases for 2010, some new original music as well as some stuff with Cheri that we had worked on. We also have a lot of great stuff from the Akashic Ensemble (Don Preston’s group) with Cheri on it. My new site www.guitartour.net will have links to download the stuff this spring, a lot of it for free. Don and I have also spoken recently about reforming the band and doing something in tribute to her and the touring we all did together.
That would be nice. I
imagine hitting the road with Project/Object so soon after Cheri’s passing was
You mention original music: of course, you released a solo album, you appear on Julie Slick’s album, Greg Russo’s Neonfire, you’ve toured with Eric Slick and the DOOT! boys. As well as teaching Paul Green’s School kids and teching for Al di Meola, Adrian Belew, Eddie Jobson and ELP.
I’ve left loads out I’m sure, but there’s clearly more to you than Zappa music. I know you like improvising and listening to the ‘orrible ‘Oo; do you actually write structured music/songs?
Yes I have written songs, as in verse/chorus/bridge/solo type pop-rock structure. It’s been AGES since I was very active in that branch of music – there’s been maybe three ‘real’ songs in the last eight or ten years. I still occasionally do some live work with my trio Hidden Agenda, that material draws upon some of the songs from a period when I wrote a lot, back 15 or 20 years ago.
Right now I have several instrumental pieces that are pretty close to ready. As you said, outside of Project/Object, which is ALL about structure, I do tend towards the avant-garde side, free jazz and electronics with Don Preston, and looping/electronica with other projects.
I also play in a great hard rock/psychedelic trio called Delicious, we have done some touring in recent years, that’s kind of like The Melvins meets early Pink Floyd and Hawkwind. We did some touring with Eric Slick on drums, he’s on the MySpace Live In VT tracks. Indeed, The Who comes to mind as well with that band; we mine the Live At Leeds vein at times. I’m excited that Pete, Roger and the boys plan to ‘see action’ in 2011.
You’re hitting the
road again shortly with Project/Object. What can fans expect?
Well once again we will be trying to bring people a different set of music than last time, some brand new things, some things we haven’t done in a while and many pieces that our particular guests are well known for. We will have Ike Willis on the entire two-week run, Ray White on most dates, Denny Walley on four of the southern dates, and the tour closer in NJ on 22 February will feature Ike, Ray, Don Preston and Bunk Gardner. The Don & Bunk Show will be the support act on that show as well.
So, a really great line-up of Zappa’s players. We have not been in southeast USA for almost five years, so we are looking forward to seeing old friends and also some new people recently into Zappa.
Any chance of playing
Europe again? Or the UK, ever!
We are in conversations with some promoters and agents about coming back to the EU. Yes. UK – we’d LOVE to...it has simply been an economic challenge....there just are never good offers from English promoters, I don’t understand it. It’s not just us, either. Most of the people I’ve worked for, major artists, are rarely there for the same reason. Makes no sense, and this is true for British artists as well as foreigners. Coupled with the high taxation for visiting artists, it’s a tough one.
But still I want to find a way. I love the UK and the British Isles, I loved playing in London and Belfast with Don Preston and hope to do so with Project/Object and some Zappa alumni.
Like me, you love a
lot of the old ‘classic rock’ bands. But what new bands are you currently
I like a few newer bands....Arcade Fire is cool, very diverse mix of styles there. I like Black Keys...although you could put that on and tell me it’s something unreleased from 1968.
I saw this new band No Age do a song on TV the other day – it was great, but sounded exactly like The Jam.
Bloc Party has been out for many years, love them, but in part it’s a modern take on The Cure.
I love Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad & The Queen.
There’s some great new psyche-metal out – I love Mastodon, another band from Georgia called Baroness. MIA, is she considered new?? What’s the cut-off point? She and Santigold are doing some amazing stuff, again – I probably love it cos it’s a hybrid of 80s synth pop, hip hop, funk and world music.
Cornelius is fantastic weird pop stuff with a Japanese twist. I think for all his idiotic statements, Kanye West does some amazing music – that track where he sampled Greg Lake/Crimson was brilliant, huge sound.
Umphreys McGee gets lumped in with the ‘jam bands’, but they do some really great, new hybrid music. Great players.
Mars Volta, awesome.
I like a bunch of Rihanna’s music.
In the jazz direction, I love Hiromi, a pianist gifted far beyond her years.
So there’s a ton of great new music, so many bands I forget the names. So easy to check them all out today, as well. Brilliant. Of course I love the more experimental stuff like Animal Collective, or stuff a few years older like Sigur Rós and Björk, who is a huge favourite. I do try to check out a lot of the new stuff, whether on iTunes on release day or from reading reviews in MOJO or on Pitchfork and Celebrity Access or various music sites like AllAboutJazz.com, etc.
I like a lot of stuff from the last few years – but I have to say, there’s VERY little that I hear that doesn’t sound like 1978-1984. I mean that in a good way – I LOVE ‘new wave’ and punk rock. So. I find that we are in a weird ‘retro’ period – the second one of the last 20 years – the other one was when we had The Vines and The Strokes and all these bands rehashing The Stooges, MC5 and New York Dolls. This time around it’s like a rehash of the Tim Buckley stuff...and the new wave stuff like Japan, Cure, Talking Heads and Blondie. It’s uncanny.
So the question remains...The Black Keys are considered ‘brand new’ and groundbreaking by many critics, yet Gong, for instance, does album after album that truly pushes the envelope and folds all kinds of new styles into their mission, yet are ignored. What exactly is ‘new music’ at that point? One of the most radical and forward-pushing things in recent years was David Torn’s prezens, yet...sorely unsung. The recent John McLaughlin Five Peace Band live album with Chick Corea, Vinnie Colaiuta, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride – that’s new music, a new band – yet marginalized by young listeners for the most part.
I’m concerned about this – when I was 16 or 22, I was listening to all kinds of brand new stuff but also made sure I exposed myself to stuff from the 50s and 60s, and as I get older, stuff from the 30s and 40s as well. It’s all music. Meanwhile band after band is coming out today, sounding exactly like Blondie or Fugazi or U2 or The Replacements. Right now it’s actually a far more conservative time than the early 80s was. In 1982-84 just listening to the radio in the NYC area you might go from Pat Benatar to The Cars, Zep to The Police or Joe Jackson, to Bad Company to Eddie Grant to the Stones or Van Halen, but also Stray Cats, Men At Work, XTC, Tears for Fears or Steve Winwood might come on.
So within the umbrella of ‘rock and roll’, you had this pretty diverse mix of new pop. Now I meet a lot of people into very very small cliques of music. I’m hopeful, though. I meet just as many young people who are incredibly aware of music from before 1995 and have diverse tastes.
In terms of new music, right now the most exciting thing I look forward to in 2011 is the forthcoming PJ Harvey record. I love her – have all her stuff and have seen her several times. She’s the real deal, an artist who keeps reinventing, great writer, an amazing performer onstage, and understands a great record is about the vibe, the energy, the poetry, and a SONG has to be there, and it has to be memorable to succeed in that field.
Whoa – I’m glad I
asked! Yeah, the Peej: White Chalk, what a brave move.
As you infer, for many nowadays it’s all about who’s young and monde and what’s current – but very little is actually ‘new’ or original.
Okay. For now, goodbye my friend – remember me in the Spring.
Oh, one final question: do you have an anticipation for precipitation?
I do! I think it's all gonna fall. I'm very into entropy, the natural direction matter wants to travel towards. Along the way we have fun trying to stop the clock in various ways but we all will fall.
Good luck with the tour, boy-boy.
Photo of André (with Kawabata Makoto) taken by this Idiot at Zappanale #20 on 19 August 2009.