Project/Object Loves their Mothers… of Invention
An interview with Don Preston
by Ryan O’Malley
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With 2016 marking his 66th year of being a professional musician, it’s fair to say Don Preston is familiar with every phase of rock and roll. After all, he was performing to live audiences from the time Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were introducing a new sound to mainstream America, and is still performing when acts like Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters and Coldplay are selling out stadiums with their modern rock and roll.
For the now 84 year old Preston, his introduction to the mainstream came in 1966, in the middle of the British Invasion when bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who were changing the landscape of popular music. At the time, a young composer named Frank Zappa was leading a group of experimental musicians known as The Mothers of Invention when he asked Preston to join the outfit on synthesizers. It would be a nearly decade-long position that would be regarded as some of the most daring work of Zappa’s career, and a tie in that remains with Preston to this day.
In 2016, Preston proudly helps introduce Zappa’s music to new generations by performing with Zappa alumni under the appropriately-titled Grandmothers of Invention, and the popular Project/Object, who – along with long-time Zappa vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis – who will be hitting the road this week for a short run celebrating the music of a creative genius.
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We recently had the chance to catch up with Preston to discuss what he’s been up to these days.
LMNR: The last time I called you was for the tour that was supposed to happen in the Spring. At that point, you were scoring the music for a film. Is there any kind of update to that project?
DP: It’s just now nearing completion. We did the final mix on it and there’s just a couple little avenues that have to be fixed as a result of that. It should be done by now. It came out really good; much better than I anticipated.
LMNR: Is scoring films something you’ve been doing more of lately?
DP: No, not really. In the past, I did about twenty films, and then I kind of retired from the business because there was a lot of bullshit going on. Then a few friends – over the last six or seven years – a few people have asked me about them. I’ve done two films now since then. This one that I just finished is called “Dances With Werewolves.”
LMNR: Along with Project/Object, you’ve been doing the Grandmothers of Invention tours. How’s that project been going?
DP: It’s kind of slowing down a little bit. We just did the Zappanale Festival in Germany, which is the biggest Zappa festival there is. It’s a pleasure to play it. We headlined the festival, and they always treat us really great there. It’s a beautiful festival, too. I’ve done it maybe seven times, and right now they’re in their 27th or 28th year.
LMNR: How did you get involved with Andre Cholmondeley and Project/Object for the upcoming tour?
DP: Andre and I are friends; we’re always talking. We did a little tour about six months ago with this percussionist that he knows (Mike Dillon)… Andre and I are always talking. In fact, he just called me as I’m speaking to you. We’re good friends.
LMNR: For you to go out with Project/Object or any other band that does Zappa material, is there an element of authenticity you look for before signing on?
DP: That sounds like a good idea, but in reality, there is no such thing. There is no authenticity, because when you were touring with Zappa, he changed the song every day. How can you be authentic when he would change the song every night, or every other night? Sometimes, once a week he would change five or six songs. The only way you could be authentic with Zappa is to play it differently.
LMNR: I know that for some of Andre’s lineups, he likes to utilize the talents of students of the School of Rock. Have you heard any of the musicians he is bringing on the road?
DP: Yeah, I’ve heard a few shows and they sound great. They all sound very competent, and I don’t foresee any problems with anybody.
LMNR: Project/Object shows tend to cover the entire length of Zappa’s career. Did you find any difficulty learning some of the later material?
DP: Well, I had to learn about eight songs for this tour out of thirty or more. I sent a list to Andre of all the songs I know, and that included quite a few from the later years, which came from working with Napoleon. He took that into consideration, so we’re doing a lot of the songs that I know. There were about eight songs that I didn’t know, so I went about learning how to play them by listening to different versions of those songs.
LMNR: As someone who was there for the beginning of Zappa’s career, were you surprised by the direction his music eventually took, in terms of grand orchestration and experimental elements?
DP: Well, I was amazed for sure. I don’t know if I was surprised, because I always knew Zappa was capable of writing more complex stuff than we were playing in the first band, or even the second band – you know, the one with Mark (Volman ) and Howard (Kaylan). When it came to the third band, I noticed a distinct difference in his writing. There was music there that was really, really complex and much more difficult to play. In that respect, yes, it was much more challenging than playing the stuff from the first band…Zappa was always trying to move forward. I don’t think he moved much farther after the third band. He just started writing really stupid songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Titties and Beer,” and I could go on forever.
LMNR: I always like to ask this to any Zappa alumni I talk to: what did Frank teach you about music and composing?
DP: Not very much. I was already into and doing music that was complex and diverse…I may have taught him a few things, but I don’t know if he taught me anything. I was always in that realm of music that he was because we both listened to the same composers and we were both aware of what was going on at that time, in terms of new music.
LMNR: As you’ve probably heard, Ike is finally getting the chance to perform with Dweezil Zappa on a few dates of his upcoming tour. What are your thoughts on the Zappa community and these musicians finally getting together?
DP: Well, we know why that’s happening (the death of Gail Zappa). I’m happy for Ike to get to play with them, because Ike has known Dweezil since he was a little boy. I think it’s very good that he’s able to utilize Ike’s incredible talents, and Ike gets to make some more money doing it. It’s a win/win.
LMNR: It always seemed odd to me that the Zappa Family Trust – when Gail was in charge – would automatically block musicians from doing Frank’s material. Wasn’t the point to keep Frank’s music alive?
DP: Yeah, that’s true. You know, when Frank died, he left a will for all the kids that they were free to use his name, and free to use his material, and everything else. She withheld that will from them, and they only found out about it after she died. It was mindboggling that she could even do that. It kind of shows you what kind of person she was. Now that she’s gone, Ike Willis is playing with Dweezil Zappa, and who thought that could happen? I’m glad that Dweezil is open enough to see the value of Ike’s abilities.
LMNR: Lastly, how would you describe what’s in store for the upcoming Project/Object tour?
DP: Well, I could guarantee a whole bunch of surprises. Of course, I can’t tell you what they are because it wouldn’t be a surprise. That’s just kind of the nature of the way I present a show when I’m in a show. I always try to do a few things that are surprising. I think that I can add to the current collaboration that Andre has, and I’m really looking forward to it. I always have a blast playing with Andre because he’s such a great guy. I think it’s going to be a really, really good show for people to go to. I highly recommend it.
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