MD: How is playing in R.E.M. different from other situations in which you’ve been involved?
Bill: R.E.M. can be seen as a system of various playing styles, feels, and approaches. With only a few people, things quickly become complex. Listening is the key—as it always is—which allows any musician to respond. The thing I’m constantly reminded of is that there is absolutely no sleeping when playing with R.E.M. You never know what will happen next. R.E.M. in one way has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. They have a very unique sense of themselves and how they play and how they play together. I don’t think that any drummer can just step in and expect it to work off the bat. I’ve worked through a couple different strategies—how to play and pull everything together so it sounds cohesive, so it sounds like music.
MD: I’m curious as to how the songs on Around the Sun were presented to you. Were they in semi-realized demo form, or were they just sketches that you, Mike, and Peter built from?
Bill: Some were in semi-realized demo form, some in fully realized demo form, some in the form of “Let’s try this and see what happens.” Michael Stipe would often sing during tracking to help with the overall feeling of the performance.
MD: Would Peter and Mike show you ideas they’d like you to try, or were you free to come up with your own parts?
Bill: It all depends. Sometimes, someone will want to hear something specific, sometimes we’ll just begin playing and see what happens. Sometimes I’ll set out to do something “interesting” or different; sometimes I just do my best to keep out of the way. Like every good musical group, the best idea wins, regardless of who has it.
MD: There’s an understated sound and vibe to Around the Sun. On songs like “Make it All Ok” and “I Wanted to be Wrong,” did you ever find yourself having to pull back, for example, scaling back fills?
Bill: “Make it All Ok” was a difficult one. It went through a few different arrangements and keys, and lots of takes. I remember that on the CD take, I was fairly frustrated and slamming away, albeit slowly and with restraint. A few earlier takes might have had better drum stuff, but the finished take was best overall. “I Wanted to be Wrong” was recorded live with guitar, bass, vocals, and tambourine. The drums in the bridge were an overdub. I love that track. It’s the sound of musicians really listening. I have no problem whatsoever playing very simply. I often prefer it. And if it’s good for the track, how or why can anyone complain? For some time now, my playing and approach to drumming has been in the “simplify, simplify, simplify” area.
MD: When faced with doing multiple re-takes of a song, have you ever just had to say, “Y’know, that’s the best I can do”?
Bill: That has happened before. I can’t remember what session it was for, but it was a 6/8 feel and for some reason I just wasn’t getting it. It was played to a sequenced thing and I was feeling it a little differently than the computer was, and for some reason I just couldn’t relax into it. I just said, “Look, when do you want to stop, [laughs] because this is the best I can do. I’m really sorry to say this, but I don’t think I can play this any better.” It’s kind of a terrible thing to admit, but it’s kind of a practical thing to admit. Not to toot my own horn, but I think that’s a good quality in a musician—to be able to say, “I can’t do this.”
MD: This leads to the next question, and a hotly debated topic: How do you feel about the widespread use of computer-based recording programs like Pro Tools? While they can be of great help, they also seem to have reduced the need for drummers to be able to actually nail a complete take.
Bill: I’m sure you’ve heard the one about the Pro Tools engineer calling to a band after a take: “That was really awful, guys…. C’mon in!” The performance question affects not only drummers. That different performances can be easily assembled without an editing block, razors, and tape I have no problem with. That someone needs to spend a week moving around drum and guitar waveforms because someone can’t play is another thing.
What concerns me more is something I’ve referred to as the “universal feel,” a euphemism for that ubiquitous, metronomic no-feel that seems to infect a majority of contemporary popular recordings. I have no beef with Pro Tools and digital recording in general. It’s allowed me to have a 64-track recording studio in my home. Ultimately, as always, it’s down to the quality of ideas within the operator.
MD: You’ve done a good amount of producing but also a lot of sessions over the years. How do you approach a session on which you’ve been hired only to drum?
Bill: If I’m hired as a drummer I sometimes have to remind myself why I’m there. My aim is to do what is asked of me. Sometimes what is asked of me is to do anything I want. Being open to input is essential. I’m not paid to force my point of view on a recording.
MD: Your recent work with R.E.M., the Minus Five, Ken Stringfellow, and others has shown the world another side of your playing. But was there ever a time previous to this when you felt like you were in danger of becoming known as “Bill Rieflin, industrial drummer”?
Bill: If those were the kinds of records I made during a certain period, it’s not unreasonable that some would think of me as that guy. There are those who still think of me as an “industrial drummer,” whatever that means. If anything, I find it a bit embarrassing. Dealing with the expectations of others is always a problem. When those expectations are trapped somewhere in history it’s even worse.
MD: Can you think of one specific record that you’ve played on that you feel is most representative of “the Bill Rieflin sound”?
Bill: No, although I do have favorite records that I’ve played on. Chris Connelly’s Shipwreck is a good record. One of the best tracks I’ve ever played is on a [former Screaming Trees vocalist] Mark Lanegan record called Field Songs. There weren’t any vocals on it, and it took like an hour to do it. The track already existed, so I was just playing drums on top. I listened to the record months later, when it came out. The one song I played on was the first song on the record, but I didn’t remember it because we just went through it in an hour. All I could think to myself was, “Whoever played on this song, Mark should have gotten to play on the whole record, because this guy is really great.” [laughs] Then at the end of the song I went, “Wait a minute, that’s me!” I was really shocked, pleasantly surprised, and extremely hopeful that I had found something that I played on that I really liked. I don’t know about other people when they hear themselves play, but I hate my playing. [laughs] I know that sounds funny.
MD: Not liking one’s own playing seems to be a complaint of a lot of great musicians.
Bill: I went to an Elvin Jones workshop once and someone asked him if he ever listened to his own records. And his response was, “Only if I want to hear all the mistakes or if I want to hear bad playing.” Right, I only listen to A Love Supreme when I want to hear crappy playing. [laughs]
MD: You’re just too close to it, I guess.
Bill: Maybe it’s reverse egotism or egotism turned on its ear. We’re all egotistical bastards. [laughs]
MD: Earlier you mentioned giving advice to your younger self. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to a young drummer just starting out today?
Bill: It’s music. Listen. Then, find an instructor who will guide you through the fundamental principals necessary to becoming an excellent musician and player. Have fun. Wear earplugs.