Interview: Zappa Band Alum Ike Willis & Stinkfoot Orchestra’s Nick Chargin

Read an interview with Ike Willis, (longtime Zappa Band alumnus) and Nick Chargin (Stinkfoot Orchestra bandleader, singer and keyboardist).

By Ted Silverman Jul 27, 2022 1:04 pm PDT

During the late summer of 2021, I was privileged to meet (via Zoom) with singer/saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock and Nick Chargin, the San Jose-based keyboard wiz, singer, and leader of the South Bay’s premier Frank Zappa tribute band: Stinkfoot Orchestra.

It’s now mid-summer 2022. A full year after Stinkfoot Orchestra emerged from San Jose, the band is back and preparing for action. Due to scheduling conflicts, Napoleon Murphy Brock is unavailable to tour until fall 2022.

In lieu of Napoleon as frontman, Chargin called in special guest and long-time Zappa-band-alum, Ike Willis, a seasoned veteran of one of the most popular phases of Zappa’s long tenure and an intimate confidant of one of rock’s most iconoclastic figures.

Ike Willis brings a wealth of experience to this iteration of Stinkfoot Orchestra. He served as frontman, and guitarist for Frank Zappa from 1978 until Frank’s final tour in 1988. Over the past 30+ years he has fronted, guest-starred or collaborated with a wide array of Zappa-faithful tribute acts from all over the globe including The Muffin Men, Pojama People, Banned from Utopia, The Others of Invention, Central Scrutinizer and Zappatica to name but a few.

I had the recent pleasure of catching up with Nick and meeting Ike over an hour-long phone chat. Our conversation included Ike’s introduction to Frank, his experience performing alongside Napoleon Murphy Brock, his hopes for the upcoming Northwest tour with Stinkfoot Orchestra and more.

My first question broached the subject of how Ike got started playing with Frank Zappa and how Napoleon Murphy Brock (Nappy) served as an influence?

Ike Willis: Nick Chargin called me a couple of months ago, and told me what was happening with Napoleon. It was a great karma type of a thing, you know, because right afterward, right after I had moved out, I had been down in L.A. and I was on tour with my Chicago band, Brothers Rage. We had just come through the Northwest and then back to Chicago. The day I got back to Los Angeles was when the nationwide lockdown happened because of the pandemic, so that was the last time I was on the road. A month after that, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and it was very, very weird. Now I’m back. I am not back 100% completely, but I’m getting close. There was a time for a while I could not walk. My cancer was all in my bones and stuff. It took us a few months, but I am doing this new hormonal treatment, no chemo, no radiation, and it’s working quite well. I’m walking, I’m talking. I can move my arms. I can do all that stuff. I’m back to at least halfway performance level.

Denise and I have been together since our first day of college in 1974. Our advisor wanted to take us on a field trip, you know, so my best friend Jeff Hollie, who played saxophone on Joe’s Garage – he and I and my wife started out as freshmen at Washington University in St. Louis. We have been together since then. Jeff’s the one who was “savvy,” on everything Zappa, he had all the albums. When our advisor suggested a field trip, the first thing Jeff said, was, “I want to go to a Zappa concert.” He somehow talked our advisor into taking us on a field trip to our first live Zappa concert. It was the Roxy And Elsewhere Tour with Frank, the Fowler brothers, George Duke, Chester Thompson, Ralph Humphrey on drums, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Ruth Underwood. That was what I call “the dream band,” and they were doing all this stuff and Nappy was the frontman. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. I was just amazed! From that point on, Nappy influenced everything that I did. As far as vocals and as a performer and being a frontman was concerned, especially with Zappa stuff. I learned a lot while watching him. I mean, from that first day on, you know, and it was amazing.

A couple of years later, Frank came to Washington University in St. Louis, to do a concert for the Sheik Yerbouti Tour. I was backstage because I was on the local crew and I wound up meeting and talking with him. He took me backstage to the dressing room and made me sing and play guitar. Then he invited me out to L.A. to audition for the band. So after I graduated in ‘78, he flew me out to L.A., and essentially, I never left.

Later, in 1984, Frank called Napoleon back into the band so it was Ray White, Bobby Martin and me, and that’s when I first met him physically, and we just hit it off and began performing together, which was awesome. I enjoyed being able to perform with one of my idols.

After Frank died, one of my main Zappa bands was Project Object. The bandleader, Andre Chumley, (Andre Cholmondeley) invited Napoleon to join the band. We wound up performing together for years.

Ted Silverman: Napoleon seems to brings swagger, bravado, and drama to all he does.

Ike Willis: Swagger, bravado? Yeah, that’s him.

Nick Chargin: Yeah. He hasn’t lost an ounce of it. I would not have expected that – to have every iota of that still.

Ted Silverman: Ike, Nappy has certain songs that fans identify him that he brought to the Stinkfoot repertoire. What material are you bringing to this new iteration of Stinkfoot?

Ike Willis: Well, anything from the Joe’s Garage era. That was my first album with Frank. You know, like, “Outside Now,” “Joe’s Garage,” “Wet T-Shirt Night,” “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee,” and “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up.”

Ted Silverman: Ike, you are probably the foremost expert on the international spread of Frank Zappa’s music. How does Stinkfoot Orchestra rate, given your history of working with all these bands and the intimate knowledge that you have in performing this music?

Ike Willis: I started touring in Europe in ’78 when I was 20-years-old. In Europe, we’re still gods. Zappa is god. I still get what happened. There was a point where I had 15 new Zappa tribute bands all over the world. I’m now down to about 10 and now 11 with these guys. My first performance with Frank Zappa was a gig with Vinnie Colaiuta in Germany, in Albert Einstein’s hometown [Ulm], in front of 125,000 people. Since then, the action hasn’t slacked off.

Ted Silverman: Must be a satisfying feeling to have that kind of love around the world?

Ike Willis: Oh Yeah.

Nick Chargin: Ted, You attended our first gig back in September. I told you back then that I plan to be a slave driver with this musical assemblage. I’ve added a lot of material. There was a lot that we had already added before bringing Ike onboard.

The thing for me that has been the most gratifying with this project has been the level of gratitude that we’ve been shown by audience members. I’ve been in some pretty good bands before, you know, but I’ve never played in a band where after the show, people come up to you with tears in their eyes, just thanking you profusely. They are so grateful.

Ike Willis: After Frank passed on the audiences are so thankful and so grateful. I miss him so much. Even I have to have my Frank fix, you know what I’m saying? I miss playing this stuff. I miss performing this stuff. I miss Frank a lot, as well as the audiences from here, to Europe and everywhere. That is why they come up after the shows, with tears in their eyes, just like Nick said because they have to have their Frank fix as well. You’re hearing it performed legitimately. Frank told me before he passed away to play it like you learned it. Just like he taught me. It’s got to be the way it was written and performed. Those were my only instructions from Frank. He said, “don’t change anything; don’t ad-lib, don’t try to get cute, don’t try to spruce it up, don’t change the key that it was written in. Play the songs like I taught you.” Frank used to rehearse us. He used to rehearse our asses off man. We put in 10 to 12-hour days, five, six days a week. We play them exactly the way I learned them. My only question is, which tour? The only difference is, which album or tour is the arrangement based upon which album? That’s all I need to know.

Ted Silverman: Allow me to digress here. Zappa fans are passionate people that are not everyday, normal rock fans; this is not everyday rock music. This is something that takes a deeper level of dedication, intellectual curiosity, and passion. This is why you have a fan base that is so strong and all over the world.

Ike Willis: Exactly. There are fans all over the world, and especially the ones that are musicians themselves. These fans take notes. They bring their notepads and their manuscript paper, and they take notes on each song and each and each arrangement. If we screw up, or if there is something that has changed, they will let me know about it. Dead seriously. They take notes.

Ted Silverman: But they also key into the content of the lyrics, not just the arrangement and with this, you are getting a more intellectually curious fan. This is not, you know, folk or hard rock from the 1970s. This is deeper music with searing societal criticism that appeals to certain people.

Ike Willis: Exactly. They don’t mess around man. If there is any deviation, lyrically, or musically, they are going to have something to say about it. I get the third degree every night. I am loyal. I’m very loyal to Frank. OK? If there is one thing you will notice about Ike Willis, and it’s why I was with Frank longer than anybody else, it’s that Ike Willis follows directions. The main reason that Frank kept me around for so long is that I did what he told me to do. That is how it has always worked for me.

Ted Silverman: It’s also that, (per my research,) Frank stated that you are a “living cartoon,” and also that you were his musical encyclopedia.

Ike Willis: Exactly. Yeah. We shared the same love of those live cartoons, and, just the silly shit, the silly stuff. From the day we met, we just started talking about that kind of stuff. We’d just break out laughing and that was within less than a minute after we met, you know? I was just a college student, but we hit it off right off the bat, because we liked the same stuff.

Ted Silverman: I got a lot of real insight out of your YouTube conversation with Gerry Fialka. (Longtime Frank Zappa tour assistant, archivist and factotum.) At first, I was like, “who is this guy?” Then I researched who he was. What a bright light. I mean, just in terms of all the intriguing people he references.

Ike Willis: Oh, yeah. Gerry is one of the most brilliant people I have ever known and ever met. He came on board with us in the mid-‘80s. He is an astoundingly astute and brilliant person. He really is one of my best friends. Gerry’s the kind of guy that Frank loved to have in his orbit.

Ted Silverman: I watched him jamming concepts into your ears and saw you exploding with thoughtful replies.

Ike Willis: Frank would do that too, on purpose. I’d be in the middle of the show, trying to sing things or perform my songs. Frank would often tiptoe over next to me and then whisper something in my ear while I was trying to do my god damn job. I was on the floor, literally on the floor, cracking up. Because we got in that habit after my second year in the band. Frank permitted me to start doing stuff like that because up until then, there was no ad-libbing. Once Frank opened the floodgates, I had official permission to start filling it out with him too. I would start doing the same thing. You know, we would have contests between ourselves, who could crack the other one up the most, while we were trying to do our job.

Ted Silverman: Well, there’s the deadly seriousness of the concept of, “project object,” that conceptual continuity thing, but you’ve got to have the humor layer in this as well.

Ike Willis: It’s nothing without the humor. It does not work unless that certain sense of humor and comedy and cynicism is there.

Nick Chargin: It’s the same thing with comedians. It used to be that people listened or, you know, read philosophers, but we don’t really have philosophers anymore. We have comedians, you know, for example, George Carlin’s job, as a comedian was very important. He put his social commentary out there in such a way that people could grab onto it, and identify with it.

Ted Silverman: No doubt. Everything George Carlin said was the truth.

Ike Willis: Frank knew George Carlin, and he knew Lenny Bruce. I think they operated with a similar philosophy and attitude. That is what I loved about Frank.

Nick Chargin: These are our philosophers, you know, these are modern-day philosophers. Frank was very conscious.

Ted Silverman: I think many people out there did not get the sarcasm, and took the message, in a way it wasn’t intended. A lot of people did not understand what the cynicism and sarcasm were about and that was part of the calculation of his humor, he knew that a portion of the people wouldn’t have the intellectual depth to figure it out.

Ike Willis:Yeah, that is exactly the thing. Many, many people did not. They thought they knew what he was talking about but they misinterpreted it. Many people totally missed the picture. When I met Frank in college, I was studying political science and law. I was on my way to law school. I understood every time I listened to Frank, anything political or anything considered political: I knew exactly what he was talking about, politically. When he hired me, it was in the last days of the Carter Administration, and the beginnings of the Reagan [adminstration]. Frank and I, were on the same page. We read the newspaper the night before each show. He’d always come in with commentary about the previous day’s political activities, and ad-lib. I was right there with him on the same page and many people just didn’t get it.

Ted Silverman: Democracy was in ruins well before that, but Frank’s pointing out Ronald Reagan’s hypocrisy was a major influence upon my collegiate sense of humor and consciousness of the bigger picture at that time. That stuff was the beginning of what we are facing today. One can only imagine how Frank would manage today’s current events?

Nick Chargin: Oh, my God. Can you imagine if Frank was still alive?

Ike Willis: I guarantee you this: if Frank were still alive, there would have been no Donald Trump. There would have been no Trump presidency. He always thought Donnie was a moron anyway, Frank knew Trump, and he would stay at the Trump hotel. Whenever we were in New York Frank would stay at the Trump Tower. Trump would try to invite Frank to his little soirees and stuff like that, so he could show Frank off, but Frank thought Trump was an idiot, which he is. I guarantee you, as a political scientist; if Frank were present, there would not have been a Trump presidency.

Ted Silverman: Well, it is good to know that Frank had that kind of under-the-hood political mind.

Ike Willis: Frank was a libertarian. His basic message was, “think for yourself.”

Ted Silverman: Ike, putting aside the baggage of ego and emotion, your health issues and everything, you occupy a privileged place. Your audience is very special. It is not the typical rock music crowd. It’s a deeper, more thoughtful, more intellectual, group, more comprehensive in their thinking.

Ike Willis:That is very true. That the entire point. Our audiences were people that had a brain. Yes. Many of the people that listened to us were doctors, professors, and scientists.

Ted Silverman: People without a short attention span that could that reason with deeper sauce.

Ike Willis:v Exactly, and that was very important to us. The main thing about the cynicism and the comedy and where the humor came from, is that if you cannot laugh at yourself, and you can’t find the humor in everyday things, then you’ve got a problem. By and large, our fans are capable of actually thinking for themselves.

Ted Silverman: Comes to mind that everyday rock band fans are playing hangman while Frank Zappa fans are doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Nick Chargin: Yes – but in ink!

Ike Willis: That’s the impressive thing about them and what gives me pleasure. Also the fact that I am still doing this — I am doing it for them, and for Frank. It was a privilege for me to be able to perform and to be a part of this person’s orbit. I have always thought that Frank was the most intelligent human being I have ever met.

Ted Silverman: That is beautiful Ike. I do not want to exhaust you much further and I am grateful for what you’ve brought to our conversation. Can you give me some idea of what you have planned for this tour with Stinkfoot Orchestra and what you hope to bring to it?

Ike Willis: Based on what background information I have on the band and my knowledge of Nick, and what he always told me that he was aiming for, Nick is on the right track. If I am right, I am going to be very pleased with this band.

Ted Silverman: I am going go out on a limb here and say from my experience seeing them rehearse and play that, you will be!

Ike Willis: I probably won’t be surprised, but I’d like to be pleasantly pleased.

Ted Silverman: I am biased as a fan. But having witnessed Stinkfoot live, having spoken to Nappy, having seen him perform in this context, with this band, it’s a very compelling unit. These folks are extremely tight. They stick to the playbook. You are going to be pleased. I hear the passion within Stinkfoot. This band is serious, lighthearted – but deadly serious about it.

Ike Willis: That’s what I expect to feel when I get up there. This music is historically important, and I feel almost a sense of duty, you know, I think it is important that we keep this going, you know?

Ted Silverman: You are paying tribute to the Frank’s conceptual continuity. Something that has been so consistent through the entire Zappa era.

Ike Willis: It is our duty. I know that on any given night. We could be somebody’s first exposure to this music. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. Because there is always going to be somebody out there who is experiencing Frank’s music for the first time, and there are going to be people. Some of them bring their kids or their grandkids, it always happens.

With Nick Chargin’s direction, singing, playing, and management of Stinkfoot Orchestra and the inclusion of Zappa stalwart, Ike Willis, contributing his particularly unique stamp of authenticity to the proceedings, it is well worth the time and ticket cost to attend an upcoming performance.

For this tour, Stinkfoot Orchestra with Ike Willis will be a 14-piece unit. Baritone singer Mike Boston has had to exit the tour due to a recent injury.

If the past is any guide, what fans can expect of these shows is tight, close-to-the-mark performances, with all the elements in place and the knowing “twinkle-in-the-eye,” levity that comes with the best live-Zappa performances. Huge horn arrangements, hair-raising guitar solos, strong ensemble vocals augmented by Ike Willis’ cartoon-character delivery of the most cherished selections in the vast Zappa repertoire, interspersed with skillfully arranged instrumental passages.

The Stinkfoot Orchestra featuring Ike Willis tour begins tonight, Wednesday, July 27 in Bend, Oregon. View the band’s tour dates below.

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