Bill Rieflin did more than just adapt his drumming skills to fit musical settings as vastly different as the Revolting Cocks and Robyn Hitchcock. He used those skills to make significant contributions live and in the studio to three incredibly influential groups in their respective genres.
Rieflin provided the metronomic foundation for Ministry as Al Jourgensen’s band flirted with taking industrial music into the mainstream in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The following decade, he’d become an important part of R.E.M.’s third act, playing on several late-era albums by the pioneering alt-indie band, in addition to touring with them all over the globe. And when prog’s wildly adventurous progenitors, King Crimson, out-Crimson’d themselves by unveiling a radical three-drummers-across-the-front lineup in 2014, there was Rieflin in the middle, providing the rhythmic ballast between Pat Mastelotto’s percussive outbursts and Gavin Harrison’s precise shredding.
Rieflin, who died in March at age fifty-nine after a battle with cancer, was capable of making it work so well with such varied artists because he wasn’t chained to time-worn notions of what a drummer should bring to a pulverizing industrial song, or a Rickenbacker-driven folk-rock song, or the countless maneuvers one could pull off in a schizophrenic prog song. “I definitely don’t think as a drummer,” Rieflin told MD in 2000, right around the time he released his eclectic solo album Birth of a Giant. But that’s not to say he didn’t mind being recognized for his technique on the kit, as former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills recalls.
“We were recording something for Accelerate,” Mills explains, “and he was doing a drum roll in this song, and I said to him, ‘Man, that drum roll; there’s something so powerful about it.’ He goes, ‘It was one hand.’ So instead of doing the ‘bada-dada-dada’ with two hands he did ‘da-da-da-da-da-da’ with one hand, and it changes the sound of it. Makes it more martial and authoritative. He was really pleased that I noticed it. And he was really pleased to tell me that that was the technique he used.”
Mills says he knew within four songs of playing with Rieflin for the first time that he’d fit well with R.E.M. because he didn’t play behind the beat. He also admired Rieflin’s willingness to stay true to original drummer Bill Berry’s parts while bringing his own creativity and power to newer songs. As much as anything, Mills says he came to enjoy the countless hours spent in the studio and on the road in Rieflin’s company.
“He was unique,” Mills says. “You can say that about a lot of people, but he was unique in a very special, larger-than-life kind of way. He was deeply thoughtful. He was very funny, in the driest possible way. He was very smart, very curious, very dark—he had such a wonderful dark side to him that I really enjoyed. I enjoyed talking to him about everything. He was a fascinating conversationalist. Just a wonderful man.”
By Patrick Berkery