Wesley Willis is standing inside a record store in the fashionable Wrigleyville area of Chicago, waiting. The large keyboard in his backpack looks small compared to his six-and-a-half-foot, 300-pound-plus frame. He yells, "Get away from me," when I introduce myself as the person he is supposed to meet. Just as I'm wondering what kind of mistake I've made driving five hours for this, he apologizes and greets me the way he does dozens of people a day -- by gingerly pulling me close to him and pushing our foreheads together, mine hitting the middle of his. The space above his eyebrows has been worn almost into the shape of a bull's-eye.
"Say 'rawr,' " he commands, looking deep into my eyes.
"Say 'RAWRRRR!!!' " he repeats with more urgency.
"Rawwwwr," I growl back.
He lets loose a guffaw that fills the store.
This was the first time I had been headbutted and snarled at by a pro football-sized paranoid schizophrenic, but other than that I thought the interview showed promise. Willis's headbutts are like his music: kind of painful but also endearing.
Willis polarizes listeners in a way only Marilyn Manson or Barry Manilow could. Through his 25-plus albums Willis essentially has created a genre of his own. The music is a weave of prerecorded patterns built on cheap synthesizers, which mostly sound like cheesy soundtracks for vintage video games. He changes keys and tempos, but only slightly -- otherwise almost every single one of his songs would sound the same, right down to the length. His music doesn't quite represent the beauty of simplicity or the subtle variation of the minimalist school, but it does hint at a peculiar originality.
The lyrics consist of Willis's rapping/ talking about either a friend, a band he has seen or a story from his life -- or, more precisely, usually about how the voices in his head affect his life. In nearly every song, at the chorus, Willis sings the name of a friend or a band or something about his "Hell Bus Rides." He ends songs by saying, "Rock over London, rock over Chicago," and then he quotes an advertising slogan such as "Budweiser, it's the king of beers."
His trademark songs are the ones about bands. Song subjects have included fans (Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam, among others) and a nonfan, Alanis Morrisette (whose management refused to allow Willis to meet the songstress). Willis's major-label debut, 1996's Fabian Road Warrior (American), was followed up, in prolific Willis fashion, two months later by Feel the Power (American). Produced by the Dust Brothers, whose meticulous production style has defined current incarnations of the Beastie Boys and the Rolling Stones, Power sounds exactly the same as records Willis cut in Chicago in three hours. After his quick stint on the majors, Willis has gone back underground, releasing SMD Promotions (Fuse) last year. His second greatest hits collection will be available in April.
Since he is a paranoid schizophrenic, critics have said that Willis is being exploited or that he is unable to comprehend what people are doing to him. But this kind of thinking ignores that Willis was putting out records before anyone offered to help him. He's always been an old-fashioned huckster, more P.T. Barnum than Sideshow Bob. A fixture at Chicago music venues, he approaches people by saying, "Would you like my CD?" And when they say, "Sure," thinking it's free, he responds with "That'll be ten dollars." He knows the first lesson of sales: Get the product in people's hands and it's harder for them to say no. Willis also sells his drawings, mostly pictures of Chicago. In fact, his artwork was his main source of income before he became a musician.
After the headbutting at the record store, Willis and I head to a coffee shop to speak more privately. Willis alternately entertains and frightens passersby, sometimes spouting curses in a Tourette's syndrome style before resuming a sentence. He carries his keyboard and a big, open-mouthed smile with him wherever he goes.
Once we get seated, we begin our official interview.
David Simutis: How many albums are you going to record?
Wesley Willis: I'd like to see if I could make at least 100 albums. Really, I'd might make at least 200 albums. I just work hard to keep my butt busting and stay on top. That's the way it is in Mother Nature and that's the way it is to live it up like it's Friday night. I love playing my music because it takes me on harmony joy rides. But instead my demon makes my joy bus rides Hell Bus Rides by cussing at me with profanity. I call them Demon Torture Hell Bus Rides in which I ride on, yelling at people. I'm a busy man. I'm a rock and roll star. I'm making music every day. I love to do my job. I love to keep busy. I love to have a good time; I love to enjoy myself. I love to get outside and make that music come alive all the time. That's the way it is in the Bible of God. That's the way it is to keep my butt on the right track and make things move it up.
D.S.: How did you like working with the Dust Brothers?
W.W.: They're nice people. I like them. I love to carry my musical talent all across the United States. I just love to keep my butt busy and show what's up. But thank God as I'm working hard, I'm just doing work for the Lord of Hosts. That's the way it is and that's the way it's going to be. Thank God as I'm working hard to keep my butt on the right track ... that's the way it is to see out of both eyes. But thank God I'm just doing my job for the first and the second dividend. When I'm busy working hard on my music, I work hard on my artwork, too. I'm a real busy man who runs my mouth just like a clown. I love being here with people because I love to go crazy and laugh just like a crazy clown. But thank God as I'm making music come alive ... that's the way it is to make things go good.
D.S.: Have you heard from any of the bands you have written songs about?
W.W.: I heard from the Meat Puppets; I heard from Drivin' N Cryin'. I hear from many bands. I'm just doing good. I just love to make sure that I'm doing a good job with my music career and staying out of trouble.
D.S.: Which is more important to you, your music or your artwork?
W.W.: I do both because I'm doing things which are in my field. I'm just out here doing something for myself to keep my butt on the right track. That's the way it is because making music and my artwork keeps me out of jail. I'm doing something that is God's work, but I will not break the just law and get myself locked up. I'm just doing well for myself.
D.S.: Do you have an all-time favorite band?
W.W.: I like the Black Crowes. At least I'm doing my job, at least I'm doing my music. [He pauses.] You'll have to excuse me. My demon is trying to shoot my interview down. But I'm not going to let it happen. I'm not going to let my demon shoot my interview down.
D.S.: Okay, we'll try to wrap this up. Are you still allowed on city buses, even after so many incidents in which you have yelled and cursed, having what you call "Hell Bus Rides"?
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W.W.: I'm still allowed on every city bus, but the problem is I always have yelling-down "Hell Bus Rides."
D.S.: If having music keeps the demons away on the bus, why don't you buy another portable CD player?
W.W.: I don't have any money in my pocket. I only have around $25. I'm going to try to get one today if I make some damn money. Would you like to buy some CDs from me?
Wesley Willis performs Saturday, February 27, at 9 p.m. at Rudyard's, 2100 Waugh. Brown Whornet opens. Call (713)521-0521 for tickets.