Thursday, February 23, 2012

André Cholmondeley (Frank Zappa tribute band PROJECT/OBJECT) interview


How old were you when you first got into music and how exactly did you get into music?

Very young, 4 or 5 years old. I remember loving all the '60s pop songs that I heard when I lived in Chicago from 1965-1970. The radio was on all the time. My parents loved music of all types.

Who were some of the first bands/artists that you really liked and why?

My Dad's record collection was it - so all at once, lots of varied stuff including Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (I was fascinated by the album cover art), The Shadows (early '60s seminal instrumental/guitar British group), Simon & Garfunkel, Isaac Hayes, Bobby Goldsboro, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (that album cover was simple but also epic to me), etc. A strange mix of music, some might say, but it was what a college student in Chicago in the late '60s would have been collecting. This was while I was growing up in Guyana, from about 5 through 11 years old.

The local radio was also great. I heard a ton of Indian vocal music, calypso, early reggae, blues, '50s music, etc. I can remember Bob Marley's first hit singles as they were introduced on radio.

I remember my Dad taking me to see a movie about the 1950s. It was incredible. That really, really had an effect on me. I was very young and can't remember details of who was in it, but you can imagine, it was Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, etc.

What was the first musical instrument that you learned how to play and why?

Guitar. And a little piano. I started late. I was 17 and living with my Dad, Grandmom & Aunt in Kingston, Jamaica. My aunt had a piano and a beat up classical/nylon string guitar. I plunked around on those all summer and figured out the very basics, with the help of some of her music books. Nothing like having TONS of time on your hands as a kid.

As far as why, I just always loved music and I loved the guitar as well. One of my cousins had taught me "Electric Funeral" by Black Sabbath a few years earlier. I just loved the sound of guitar. From that first Shadows album as a kid, I just loved the twang and sustain and sound of... a guitar through an amp.

Are you a schooled musician? And do you feel that aspiring musicians should have some sort of formal musical education or training? Why or why not?

Sadly, no. Definitely a regret I have, along with not going further with early French and Spanish classes. So, so important to know multiple languages in the 21st century.

But as far as music - yeah, I minored in music for a while in college and took a bunch of theory and history courses, so that is the extent of my formal training. Probably a year of theory and a couple years of deep history, courses on Music of Antiquity, a semester of a Beethoven only class and some 20th century music & tape studio classes.

As far as aspiring musicians having some sort of formal musical education or training - indeed. But I think it works both ways. You have Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and many of the creative forces of modern electric music, none of whom had formal training.

Then again, you have someone like Pat Metheny or Al Di Meola, who have done decades of study and deep musical theoretical knowledge and who keep applying it to real life performance and composing, and pushing the envelope as well. So, it's tough to say. I think just "being creative" is the hardest part. I mean, what's more creative - a cool XTC song that I still love after 32 years or a difficult Dream Theater tune, where they all are reading some impossible chart? Is AC/DC's "Back in Black" less awesome than something from the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Genesis?

Having said that, I say YES, try to get as much theory knowledge as you can, and keep doing so. Knowing how to communicate quickly with other musicians is paramount and having a theoretical idea of what you're playing takes things to a completely other level. It's a fantastic time for self-teaching as well. Countless websites and DVDs that can get anyone's theory knowledge supercharged in a couple of months. Having said that, let's always remember that some of the greatest songs ever were written with no thought to theory.

I was also fortunate enough in the '80s to study world music with Philip Corner and electronic/tape music with Dan Goode, each of them well known "downtown NYC" composers who led many groups, including the groundbreaking "Gamelan Son Of Lion". That whole period (1983-87 or so) was massive for me, learning about all kinds of African and Indian music, various forms of Indonesian & Balinese gamelan, Brazilian music, Burundi, Chinese, Japanese, Cuban, Tuvan, Irish, Moroccan, Javanese, eastern European, Persian, ancient Egyptian and Greek music and on and on.

At the same time, I was a huge fan of WNYC radio's "New Sounds" with John Schaeffer. From that program, I heard people that were then selling relatively huge amounts of records. People like Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, to the more obscure (at that point in their careers) like Scott Johnson, Vernon Reid, John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Sonny Sharrock and all the stuff that was at the Knitting Factory.

As a musician and as a songwriter, who are some of your influences and why?

Ha, an impossible list. I mean, all the stuff already mentioned and all the classic rock stuff. I loved rock radio and never apologize for all that stuff - The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Cars, Aerosmith, Queen, Ted Nugent, Boston, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, all that stuff. Then the funk/disco side of stuff - Earth Wind & Fire, Funkadelic, all the top 40 disco hits - loved 'em!

Then onto guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Sonny Sharrock, Pat Metheny, Vernon Reid, Bill Frisell, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Prince, David Torn, Robert Fripp, Andy Summers... Michael Hedges - love that guy. We saw his last show ever. That was heavy as hell when we heard a few days later that he had died. We hung out and rapped with him after the show. I'll never forget it. HUGE influence on my acoustic playing and just in attitude, such a very cool guy, on multiple levels.

So many influences, it's ridiculous to list. Jazz? Huge part of my diet. Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, Tony Williams, etc. All the fusion greats like RTF, Weather Report, Mahavishnu, etc. 20th century greats like Xenakis, Varese, Penderecki, Bartok, etc.

All the '80s new wave stuff - The Police are like my Beatles! XTC, Joe Jackson - HUGE. The Clash - that band is a serious soundtrack to my life. Bad Brains, Black Flag, Sex Pistols, Santana, Devo, Rush, etc.

The whole '90s revolution like Fishbone, fIREHOSE, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.

'60s songwriter stuff like Burt Bacharach - he's a genius! I'm recently digging the Dionne Warwick stuff with him and Hal David. It's the roots of so much modern pop. Brilliant.

Tons of metal. I grew up on Thin Lizzy, The Scorpions, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, then to Voivod, Sepultura and all the way through to modern metal like Animals as Leaders, Mastodon, Iced Earth, Lamb Of God, Kylesa, Baroness, etc.

Visionary people like Kate Bush, Bjork, Peter Gabriel, David Torn, Robert Fripp, Vernon Reid and P.J. Harvey are way, way high on the list. Just true creative genius to me. Todd Rundgren and, of course, Frank Zappa - major influences.

I listen to a lot of electronic stuff and hip hop - Nine Inch Nails & Trent Reznor, Squarepusher, Kanye West, M.I.A., Skrillex, Autechre, Aphex Twin, Tricky, and old school stuff like Public Enemy, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Os Mutantes, Can, Gong, etc.

Everything except modern country music!

What were the circumstances that led to the formation of your Frank Zappa tribute band, PROJECT/OBJECT?

I had heard a couple of Zappa singles and I thought he was a really funny guy. But then in 1981, a buddy of mine (fellow freshman engineer destined to fail out) played me Zoot Allures. I instantly became a huge fan, voraciously collecting everything I could.

Around 1989, I started holding a "Zappa Birthday Party" every year on Dec 21st. I noticed right away that people were fascinated reading all the articles and interviews that I would set out and they took notes on favorite tracks and albums. By the third year, I decided to have my band at that time, Zen Pajamas, play a couple of Zappa songs at the party. It was a blast and people wanted more right away. So the next year, we learned 15 or 20 songs, had a bigger blast and realized that we had to do this EVERY year.

The band expanded and by the 3rd or 4th year, we were doing the parties at a local club in New Brunswick, NJ. It became the scene there. At some point then I decided to call it PROJECT/OBJECT and I think we started doing it a couple times a year.

Then, the guys who are our managers still, Howie Schnee & Mike Maietta, booked us into the Lions Den in NYC. That was the beginning of doing gigs all around the northeast. Then out from that.

What are some of your favorite Zappa songs to perform and why?

So, so many. But a handful would be "Packard Goose", "Duke Of Prunes (Orchestral)", "Inca Roads", "five-five-FIVE", "Sy Borg", "Florentine Pogen", "Cruising For Burgers", "Echidna's Arf/Don't You Ever Wash That Thing", "The Idiot Bastard Son", "Big Swifty", "City Of Tiny Lights". Those all stand out.

Why? Various reasons - nostalgia, difficult & challenging, great well written song and/or a song with a chance to improvise.

What are some of your favorite Zappa albums and/or songs and why?

Again, so difficult - Roxy & Elsewhere, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5, Bongo Fury, Them Or Us, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Jazz From Hell, Tinseltown Rebellion, Sheik Yerbouti, Läther, Waka/Jawaka and big faves are the first two that I ever heard, Zoot Allures and Zappa In New York.

My favorite Zappa songs are the same as listed for favorite to perform, plus maybe stuff like "Cucumonga", "Debra Kadabra", "Strictly Genteel", "Yo Mama", "The Black Page", "Läther", "Doreen", "Mother People"... gawd, so many. Impossible list!

What Zappa alumni have performed with PROJECT/OBJECT?

Ike Willis, Ray White, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Denny Walley, Don Preston, Robert Martin, Ed Mann, Mike Keneally, Bunk Gardner, Bob Harris, Thana Harris, Jimmy Carl Black, Arthur Barrow, and Roy Estrada. Bruce Bickford has done a few onstage improvs with us. He's not a musician but, of course, he's a claymation genius, well known for his work in Zappa's "Baby Snakes" etc . Al Malkin also came onstage once to share some vocals.

We've also had Zappa related people perform with us a few times as well, like Frank's sister Candy, Geronimo Black (son of Jimmy Carl), and Jerry Cuccurullo (brother of Warren), who knew Frank and jammed with him a couple times and also played on Dweezil's early material & singles and toured with L. Shankar for years.

What we try to do is just celebrate this crazy circus of people that Frank unleashed on the art world. It's really remarkable, since there are so many offshoots from the amazing musical universe that he created.

Were there any kinds of challenges in order to get Zappa alumni to perform with PROJECT/OBJECT? If so, please discuss.

Not really. It has happened rather organically, starting with meeting Ike Willis in August of 1984, then again in 1988, and becoming friends on that tour where I saw almost ten shows. After that, Ike and I stayed in touch through the '90s.

Then, in 1995, I went to see Ike with Banned From Utopia (in my opinion, the all time BEST Zappa tribute band) with Tommy Mars, Arthur Barrow, Ed Mann, Bruce Fowler and others. I gave Ike a cassette (!) of my band at that point. After getting home and hearing it, he called me (on a land line!) and said, "well, I need to come out there and whip you guys into shape, but sure, let's do some shows!".

From there, we did a big festival in 2000 where we met a number of the Zappa alumni that soon toured and sat in with us. Through the years, I have reached other people through the internet, etc. They've always been gracious and quite touched that the fans respond to them so intensely, even many years after their time with Frank.

What is your current relationship with Dweezil & Gail Zappa and the Zappa Family Trust?

Well, at this point, I'm happy that it's at a detente, a quiet place. Let's just say that there's been a lot of water under the bridge and at the end of the day, we have always worked within the law in terms of copyright and performance & publishing laws, etc. The only time any of this went to court, it was US taking ASCAP to court for illegally hassling us. The NYC courts threw it out and said ASCAP had no case. So that has been the focus of the Zappa Family for over a decade - lawsuit threats and hassling the clubs along the way. None of it makes much sense to us since, again, we've always done stuff by the book.

The family continued for years to speak about "permission". With all due respect though, no one needs "permission" to perform published works. If that were true, the bar economy would collapse. Every band doing U2, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin and Hendrix would stop tomorrow. So, yeah, guess what -- performing covers in the USA (and most of the rest of the planet) is totally legal, in the correctly certified, dues-paying venue. It's also 100% legal, without "permission" to record and then sell cover versions of someone's published works (CDs or DVDs). You would simply owe an easily calculated amount of dues (mechanicals) to the owner of the copyright.

So, it's been peaceful really. And in general, the family (well, Gail and Dweezil) continues to speak out against "unauthorized performances" all around the world. I don't worry about it too much. I am celebrating Frank Zappa's music, as well as the contribution and role of the many amazing people who performed with him.

And also, I feel that we are honoring his last wish, as communicated by Moon Zappa herself just after Frank died. She said, on their official Zappa answering machine, that Frank's message to his fans was: "Just play his music, if you're a musician, and otherwise play his music anyway - that will be enough for him!".

Discuss the other bands that you're currently in and that you have been in.

Currently, I'm in a psychedelic/heavy power trio called DELICIOUS. We're based here in Asheville, NC. It's a really cool band. Lots of very long pieces of music that evolve. Since there are no vocals, we really try to work with texture and I use some looping and unique effects.

I'm also in a new trio doing the music of The Police and another aggressive-ambient/trip hop/spacey duo that is recording a CD.

I've been in and out of so many cool bands. Played bass in a couple bands and on a great punk rock album called Infernal Doll by False Virgins from 1990.

I had a great experimental duo with my partner and soulmate of over twenty years, Cheri Jiosne. We did electronic and percussion/sample based performances and we did several tours as a trio with Don Preston, touring all around the northeast as well as Ireland, England, Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. Some amazing tours, CDs, films and radio broadcasts were done by that band, including live on the BBC in London. Sadly, Cheri lost her battle with breast cancer in August of 2010. That's a major important end of a chapter of both my personal life and my musical life. That is difficult to deal with on a daily basis. Click here to watch a YouTube video of Cheri, Don Preston and me performing at Zappanale 18 in Germany.

Discuss your work as a guitar tech, particularly what bands/artists you work for and have worked for.

I started in road crew work with other artists after Cheri and I closed down our natural foods store. We owned/ran a store in Red Bank, NJ from 1995 to 2005.

From 2006 to 2007, I toured with Al Di Meola, teching and tour managing for him, with tours all around the USA, Canada, Chile, Israel and all around Europe.

Later, in 2007, I began working for Adrian Belew, also touring all around USA, Canada, Australia, criss-crossing Europe and even playing in Russia and Turkey. I toured full time with Adrian for about three years and we've talked about possible stuff in the future. It's all about having your schedule open when an artist has a tour!

During a break in Adrian's tours, I did a month tour-managing for Derek Trucks. Then, a few little tours with Eddie Jobson (violin/keys player for Curved Air), Roxy Music, King Crimson, UK, Zappa and Jethro Tull.

In 2010, I did the Keith Emerson/Greg Lake duo tour and the lone ELP reunion gig, working for Greg in the bass/guitar tech area.

In 2011, I teched for John Wetton (of King Crimson & Asia) on another Eddie Jobson tour in the US and Japan, then for Steve Howe (also of Asia) on the YES/STYX summer tour. Coming up for 2012 is Greg Lake's first solo tour. I'll be on that teching and stage crew.

The work - long hours! Not glamorous at all. Away from loved ones for ages. Often compromised sleep. A handful of almonds for dinner sometimes. BUT you go to all kinds of amazing places. Now granted, you don't always get to see much more than the drive from the airport to the hotel and the 3 blocks around the club but it's incredible fun at the same time and a supreme learning experience.

For all of these artists, there are some goals in common - find out quickly how THEY like stuff to be done and how their backstage needs to be so they are as stress free as possible. The stage setup needs to be so they can walk out and get into a creative space. Learn all of their gear inside out and know what can go wrong and how to fix it. In general a big part of your job is to remove, deflect and negate ANYTHING, any person, any vibe that will detract from playing the music.

It's important to really know a lot about the music and the gear that they need. It's also key to get an idea of what their vision is so that you can suggest new things for them to check out. You'll find that sometimes, very creative people get shut off from the chances to try new stuff. That is not to say that there is always a way to IMPROVE on the ideas of a legend but if they ask me to seek out new items or new inspiration, I need to know how to do that. So I spend a lot of time checking out new technology and improvements in sound creating equipment. Some of the work that I'm proudest of has been bringing new gear, new technology and/or programming to people like Adrian Belew, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, who all influenced me so greatly as a teenager to fall in love with the original experimental gear.

Discuss your work as a tour manager and a booking agent.

Tour managers do a lot of babysitting as well as major logistics. It's like juggling spinning plates while riding a unicycle offroad!

It's great if you can get into a real high energy state and focus that. It's about keeping a ton of constantly moving details in your head. And today, using all the available technology in a smart way so that each day is well planned far in advance.

You have to know everything about the needs and wants of anywhere from 2 to 20 people (or more!) and knowing everything you can about each town, city, country, neighborhood, the weather, the food, etc. long before you get there. Hugely important, of course, is THE MONEY - collecting it every night if necessary, paying bills along the way (gas, per diems, hotels, etc.) and making sure that the tour is not wasting money on the road.

Booking is another type of juggling (more static though since you do that at a desk most of the time) but the same kind of knowledge base about the band and where & when their music will work in a given market. You really have to get into the headspace of the band on the road. In other words, you don't give them a 13 hour ride into busy NYC on a Friday or book a metal band in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. It's always interesting dealing with the various club personalities, as well. Booking is also less fun than it sounds but becomes easier if you can establish new connections on the road.

Feel free to mention any of your other endeavors (musical or otherwise) here.

My solo music - that will certainly be a focus this year. I'm re-releasing my two CDS (maybe for download only). But certainly a whole raft of new music, a lot of ambient and acoustic based music. I will release a lot of it via my Facebook -

When I'm not doing all the music work, I also substitute teach here in NC. I have done that on and off for over twenty years and also have taught some county college stuff. Really, I'm just trying to re-focus my life after massive losses (my mom and my partner). That's an everyday struggle and musical therapy is really a massive thing. Music - truly the ultimate creative force as far as I'm concerned. Thank you for the opportunity to tell part of my story.

1 comment:

Raymmmondo said...

André Cholmondeley is as nice a person as he is a talented musician (hint: very)!

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