His albums are barely known this side of the Atlantic - and they don't sell shed-loads over there either - and yet they are stuffed with brain fryingly psychedelic wonders and feature guest slots by the likes of Don Preston and Bunk Gardner (The Mothers Of Invention), Michael Bruce (Alice Cooper Group, Jan Akkerman (Focus), Peter Banks (Yes) Zoot Horn Rollo and Rockette Morton (Captain Beefheart's Magic Band), Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth (Gong) and numerous other famous names. So just how did the unasuming Billy 'Ant-Bee' James find himself in such illustrious company and did he, we wonder, come from a musical family background?
Billy: “Although my father had the first Beatles record and a few cool soundtrack LPs like West Side Story back in the early '60s, other than that, there was absolutely no musical background in my family. Likewise, growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina there was barely a music scene – mainly small clubs and garage bands. Although there were a few venues large acts like the Mothers, Pink Floyd and even Led Zeppelin did perform at in the early '70s [but] the local scene was minimal.”
Total Music: Was Ant-Bee always a solo project with guests or was there ever a band?
Billy: “It started as a series of aural experimentations on my Teac 4-track reel-to-reel in Los Angeles in 1987. When I got signed to BOMP records in 1989 Ant-Bee was mainly me with the addition of some musical friends. I did form a band right after the first album Pure Electric Honey was released and we did some videos, but in the end it was not meant to be a touring unit. Also by 1991 I made a connection with Bunk Gardner, Don Preston and Jimmy Carl Black of the original Mothers of Invention and my direction began to change.”
Total Music: In the early '90s you covered the Beach Boy's ‘Do You Like Worms?’ is it really true that it features on some bootlegs as a rare Beach Boy out-take?
Billy: “Right after the first LP was released in 1990, I ventured back into the recording studio to work on a follow-up single. I had been listening to the Beach Boys Smile outtakes for a number of years and decided to cover one of the tracks that had never been officially recorded by the Beach Boys or covered by any other band at that time ('Do You Like Worms?'). After I finished my version of the track, I sent a few cassette copies out to some key fans and press that were followers of my work at the time and somehow a copy got to a radio station that was doing a special on the Beach Boys. Evidently the track was played on the show and touted as an unreleased version of a Smile outtake – to this day I don't know if the DJ knew it was a cover or thought it really was an outtake.
From this, the track wound up on several Smile bootlegs. One was a very elaborate three LP set on colored vinyl, with a poster and original track sheets from the recording sessions. When it came to my track, it said recorded November 1966 (when I was 6 years old). After many years of defending the truth that this was not a Beach Boys outtake but a cover version in 1996 when Brian Wilson toured Smile, in the tour book it read that Ant-Bee was the first band to cover 'Do You Like Worms?' - ahhh, finally redeemed!”
Total Music: How did you link up with the Mothers Of Invention?
Billy: “When I was working on the second album With My Favorite Vegetables & Other Bizarre Muzik , I decided to write and record the first of several tributes to Zappa and the Mothers. While I was working on the song 'Lunar Egg-Clips Runs Amuck' someone handed me a card that read 'Bunk & Don – Music for all occasions', well the only person I knew named Bunk was Bunk Gardner of the original Mothers of Invention. So I called the number and lo and behold it was actually him and a friendship and working relationship began that night with him and Don Preston, which has lasted now 20 years!”
Total Music: You must have one of the most impressive phone books this side of Bootsy Collins, how the hell do you meet all of these legendary people?
Billy: “Different circumstances for different artists. Through Bunk and Don I met Roy Estrada, James 'Motorhead' Sherwood, Jimmy Carl Black and Ray Collins. Michael Bruce I met through a mutual booking agent. Through Michael I met Neal (Smith) and Glenn (Buxton, both Alice Cooper band members). Daveid Allen and Gilli Smyth I met through my UK label at the time. Jack Bruce, Mitch Mitchell, Buddy Miles, Ken Hensley through a project I did for the late guitarist Bruce Cameron.”
Total Music: Tell us more about working with guitar heroes like Jan Akkerman and Peter Banks on the new album?
Billy: “Jan I can't remember how I got in touch with him – I think I sent him my third CD (Lunar Muzik) and he faxed me back telling me he enjoyed the album and would do a piece for the 4th CD. He eventually sent an amazing acoustic guitar piece called 'Mannah' which I added Mellotron to. Peter Banks I distinctly remember writing him a letter back in '95 telling him how much I enjoyed his new CD. I received a phone call from him not long after and we became fast friends ever since.”
Total Music: Pretty much everyone you work with have their roots in the late ‘60s early ‘70s music scene, an era many people believe was when the finest music ever created was made, is this something you subscribe to?
Billy: “For me, most of the music I enjoy is from those eras but I do follow certain artists right up till now like Jon Anderson/Yes and Daevid Allen so I do listen to their work in the '80s, '90s, to now. Not too many new bands do I listen to sorry to say. I've tried but just don't find too much interest. Animal Collective have a couple things I heard – but I don't actively listen to them.”
Total Music: Is there anyone left on your collaborator wish list that you haven't worked with yet?
Billy: “Mike Oldfield, Flo & Eddie, Jon Anderson, Bill Nelson”
Total Music: Should your latest album Electronic Church Muzik be viewed as pro or anti organised religion?
Billy: “Neither, it is a stream of consciousness trip through the spirituality of mankind. Although, all my music is written for the creator – the creator in my reality, maybe not in the readers.”
Total Music: Your music could never be described as commercial (like Frank Zappa you need to invest some time and effort before it fully reveals itself), is it possible to make a living making such challenging music or is it purely a labour of love?
Billy: “I've made some money on my music career surprisingly, but for the most part it is a labor of love...”
Electronic Church Muzik is available now on Barking Moondog Records. For more information go to www.BarkingMoondog.com Billy has also published numerous books (see sidebar), several in conjunction with members of the bands in question...