When Frank Zappa, the brilliant, outrageous and outspoken musician, composer and filmmaker, died 25 years ago, he did not take his influential body of work with him. His activism against censorship, his compositional prowess and mad-professor approach to his art continue to inspire — thanks in part to musicians who are bringing the Zappa ethos to today’s audiences.
For the better part of those 25 years since Zappa’s passing, the band Project/Object has been on the road spreading the Gospel according to Frank. Founded by guitarist Andre Cholmondeley, the rotating group features alumni from Zappa’s renowned bands, like Project/Object mainstay singer/multi-instrumentalist Napoleon Murphy Brock as well as current featured alum Denny Walley. Brock and Walley performed together on 1975’s “Bongo Fury,” a collaborative album credited to Frank Zappa, his band the Mothers of Invention, and Captain Beefheart. In addition to other choice Zappa cuts, Project/Object is playing “Bongo Fury” in its entirety on its winter tour, which hits the River Street Jazz Cafe in Plains, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 15, and The Cutting Room in New York on Sunday, Dec. 16.
We caught up via email with Cholmondeley — who also works as a tech for legendary Yes guitarist Steve Howe — about how he became a Zappa fanatic and much more.
What inspired you to start Project/Object?
I became a Zappa fan at age 16. About eight years later, living in a post-college apartment I decided “why not have a Zappa birthday party on December 21?” Did that for two or three years… we would listen to 24 hours of pure Zappa. It became hugely popular. I then thought, “wait a minute, maybe my band can learn half a dozen Zappa songs for the party…!” We did. Then the next year we learned 10 more. The rest is history.
How would you describe the audiences that come out to your shows? Is there a mix of people who saw Zappa and fans too young to have ever seen him in concert?
Exactly so. It’s a great mix….veterans who’ve seen Zappa, like the guy last night who saw him 10 times, as I did, or the people every night who for the first time in their lives are seeing ANY Zappa music. We have fans in their 60s who proudly bring their kids, and are ecstatic for them to see some of the music and musicians they grew up with.
Why do you think Zappa’s music has endured for decades?
Well it was absolutely unique hitting the ground in 1966. When we look back at other releases around the first few Zappa/Mothers albums…with 50 years of perspective they STILL stand out as radically different, in my opinion. While you can hear threads of the ” ’60s contemporary sound,” Zappa’s production, subject matter and hybridization of styles is still pretty unique. Of course his political commentary turns out to have been spot-on. In fact on this tour we do a piece around the first song on the first album, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy.” I’m urging people to go read the actual lyrics. They are stunning given today’s climate, and the 50 years of American misadventure since Zappa released the song.
Who are some well-known artists where you see a direct line of inspiration or influence from Frank?
Wow. Interesting question. Some of the jam bands come to mind — Phish of course has always mentioned him, and they are well known for doing “Peaches.” I hear some Zappa in some of the horn charts of Snarky Puppy. The legendary English singer/composer Joe Jackson is a big Zappa fan. In fact I’m very proud as a big fan of Joe, that he has come to see Project/Object twice! He’s hung out with us a bit and has said some great and supportive things. Todd Rundgren is another legendary artist that has spoken of his love of some Zappa work. On his recent tour he did a Trump-content parody cover of “Camarillo Brillo.” There’s a great young band today called Bent Knee, where I can see some of the jump-cut tempo change ideas and just general layering of multiple styles that Zappa did. I happen to know the guitarist Ben Levin and he’s a fan of all kinds of wild music including Zappa. I’d say also in the whole range of ’90s stuff like Mr. Bungle, MIRV, Fishbone, you can hear threads…even if it’s second-hand. It’s also exciting how many young people are discovering him. Perfect era to do so — when you can find all the music online in many forms.
How do you integrate new members into Project/Object?
Well it’s twofold — I have the “regular” members then there are the “Zappa alumni” members. For the regular guys like me… I have so many friends and musical colleagues from the many years, that I have a Rolodex of people. I meet new players at shows, or people send me recordings, saying “hey man if you ever need this instrument, I’d love to play in the band.” The alumni, over the years I’ve met many of the key players, and most of those I’ve met have at least sat in with us, or even toured with us. I’m in touch with several of them at any given time, and we hope to keep rotating in various beloved players as schedule allows.
Tell us a bit about the prep work that went into the “Bongo Fury” set.
I decided sometime around the April 2018 tour that I’d love to continue our “complete albums” series. We’ve done “Zoot Allures,” “Sheik Yerbouti,” “Joe’s Garage,” “Apostrophe,” “One Size Fits All” and “We’re Only In it for the Money.” For this one I figured, we have two of the living members from this album, let’s go! So I told the band early on, and we all started listening closely. Once you get into the mode of “I need to perform this,” you really start to get into the granular details.
To prepare, printing lyrics, voracious listening on headphones, and a bunch of rehearsals! We also had email discussions about who would do what parts, etc. In the past we’ve done “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy,” “Debra Kadabra,” “Advance Romance”,and “Poofter’s Froth….” So that’s over a third of the tracks ready to go before we even started.
Who is handling the Captain Beefheart parts, including the spoken-word sections?
Napoleon Murphy Brock sings “Poofter’s Froth…” and I do the others: “Debra/Sam With/200 Years/Man With Woman Head” as well as “Cucamonga,” which Frank sang.
What do people Zappa alumni Napoleon and Denny bring to Project/Object — both musically and from a standpoint of having known Frank personally for so long?
A lot! Between them they are probably on two dozen Zappa albums, so they have major importance in being a part of the diverse output. So the fans love the fact that they get to see, hear and meet some more of “the guys who did the records.” Denny and Napoleon both bring strong and individualistic personality to the parts and to the overall band sound. I suspect their unique personalities were a huge part of Frank putting them in the band. Denny knew Frank starting around the sixth grade, so he saw the entire arc in a way no one else did. In their 70s, both guys sound as good or BETTER than they did IN the ’70s !!
What has been your favorite Zappa album to re-create on-stage?
That’s a tough one. I’m gonna say “Sheik Yerbouti,” it’s a great one. But this tour, “Bongo Fury” may eclipse that.
What have been some of the most challenging songs in the Zappa catalog to learn and perform?
The ones you might think!! “The Black Page,” “Echidna’s Arf/Don’t you ever wash that thing,” “What’s New In Baltimore.” In the current tour, “Little House I Used to Live in” is back, and that’s actually quite tricky, even if it doesn’t sound like it.
How did you become a fan of Zappa?
In my early teens I was a huge fan of a radio show by Dr. Demento. He was a guy that played all kinds of oddball stuff, comedy stuff, weird stuff. Anything from Spike Jones to “Weird Al” Yankovic. I heard stuff like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” and “Dancing Fool,” I thought Zappa was just some comedy guy. Then in my freshman year in college, I went to a smoke a joint with a pal. He said “have you ever heard this album?” He put on “Zoot Allures.” I felt like the room levitated. I was hooked. A big part of why I failed out after my first two semesters was that I immediately dedicated my life to finding every bit of Zappa I could, taping stuff from people and off the radio. The radio station at Rutgers University where I was, had a 24-hour Zappa show on Halloween. So that was an INCREDIBLE opportunity, I got this huge dose of Zappa, sat up all night taping stuff. Thirty seven years later I’m still a voracious student of his genius.
Do you have any standout memories from your Zappa fandom? A certain album, concert, etc. that sticks with you after all these years?
So many. The first time I saw him, of course. August 1984, wow. Couldn’t believe it was real. Another is in 1988, when I got to meet him and shake his hand, and I said “Frank I’m gonna bring you a P.M.R.C. sign in a couple days!”.He turned to me, gave a thumbs- up and said “Make it a big one!!” A few days later, I think it was Feb. 8, 1988, and I handed Frank the sign. He read it all and cracked up halfway thru. It’s on the bootlegs, right before the encore “Strictly Genteel.” Absolutely my top, favorite Zappa-related memory, and I am fortunate to have many. But making Frank crack up onstage, I mean, that’s it. I can’t and won’t top that !
What else did you listen to growing up?
So much. Beatles. The Shadows were a very early band I loved. Soul and disco music, from my parents’ generation. The Bee Gees. “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Donna Summer. I had a cousin who turned me on to Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath when I was about 8 or 9. Strangely, at age 7 or 8, The Last Poets, thanks to my dad’s album. Lots of hard rock like AC/DC, Kiss, Thin Lizzy, Queen, Rush. But also Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, The Cars, reggae and Indian music, which I heard on the radio growing up a bit in Guyana, where I was born and lived from age 5 to 11. Around the time of getting into Zappa I also got into Pink Floyd heavily, the Doors, YES, etc. So then by age 17 or 18 it was Gentle Giant, Mahavishnu, Tangerine Dream and all that kind of stuff.
What does Project/Object have planned for 2019?
Well we hope to do at least one tour, but hopefully a couple small ones if everyone’s schedule allows. Of course I tour a ton with other artists, so I kind of make it difficult!! But we are looking at some windows of time in the spring, summer and fall to see what works.
Is there another Zappa album you’ll be focusing on next?
Nothing planned currently but there are a couple on the wish-list.
I noticed you doing guitar tech work at a Yes show I was at, and I did some research and see you’ve done tech work for ELP, Al DiMeola, etc. How and why did you start doing tech work?
Needed a new career when my late partner and I closed the natural foods store we had for a decade ! I was working at School Of Rock, and a fellow teacher was saying he couldn’t make it to do a weekend fill-in for Al Di Meola. He said, “Hey you should do it!!” At first I said, “Nah that’s crazy.” Driving home I thought about it, and realized, “wait a minute…I’ve toured for years, I know the basics of guitar setup, I can plan tours, rent vehicles, do the accounting etc…why not ??” So I called them, did the tryout weekend and then stayed with Al for a year. The rest just keeps happening.
How did you begin working for Yes/Steve Howe? Do you still tech for him?
Yes I do! I started with the 2011 YES/Styx tour. Then I started back up in 2015 or 2016, and every tour since.
Have you picked up any new tricks of the trade about touring, equipment, etc. from tech’ing?
Of course, yeah! Every tour you learn a bit more about problem-solving, which is really 80 percent of the job. Being able to improvise, to identify a problem then immediately a solution, is the key. Keeping your cool, dealing with long hours and irregular sleep and eating schedules, all of that is very important. I learn a ton by working in different settings around the USA and especially around the world and seeing different ways stuff is done….or not done.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention that I did not ask about?
I think you hit some great and interesting questions! I guess I just always ask fans to spread the word… we live in the era of “viral information,” and every night we have fans who say they found out because of something online etc. Please let people know that we will keep doing this labor of love for Zappa music for as long as we can. In fact the best thing is that there are now so many bands around the world doing this, and of course Dweezil Zappa is out there, with his excellent band. Ed Palermo in NYC has a great “big band Zappa” group that plays an amazing show. I’m proud that we were out there and really the first to get the alumni involved in an ongoing touring situation. Thanks for the opportunity.
On Facebook and Instagram we are ‘projectobject’
Photos by Brian Diescher