Bill Rieflin is a drummer more by circumstance than design. And he certainly never aimed for a career as a hired gun for artists on the fringe. But here he is, on the cusp of the millennium, with performances on nearly fifty recordings—eleven in 1999 alone, including discs by Nine Inch Nails, Chris Cornell, an improvised collaboration with Robert Fripp and Trey Gunn, and his own exotic solo album, Birth of a Giant.
Still, Rieflin bristles somewhat at the mere label of “drummer,” and it’s hard to blame him. He’s a pianist, guitarist, songwriter, freshly minted singer (on the solo disc), and—as another feather in his 1999 cap—head of his new record company.
“I definitely don’t think as a drummer, and when I listen to music, I don’t do so from a drummer’s point of view,” Rieflin says. “If I hear a great drumming performance on a piece of music I don’t like, I’m not going to listen to it. I’m not that interested in drumming to the degree where I’ll overlook everything else. The whole package has to be there.”
Rieflin is best known among musicians, if not publicly, for his work along the industrial circuit—chiefly through five albums and associated tours with Ministry and, to a lesser degree, several contributions to KMFDM. Now thirty-nine years old, the Seattle resident invests far more time and energy than he would like to on the business end of his label, First World Music (www.firstworldmusic.com). He’s itching to find a road-worthy project. “I’d really like to be busier musically,” he says. “I ran into some friends in town the other day and they said, ‘Wow, you must really be busy because your name is popping up all over the place.’ I said the only difference is now I have a publicist.”
MD: Did your new record develop through years of performing on other people’s records, or rather does it capture a moment in time?
Bill: Actually, I wasn’t remotely interested in capturing myself in any sincere way. My primary motivation was to make music I thought I’d like to hear, music that captured more of the attributes I like to hear. It was also a matter of working against things I don’t like in much of the music I’m hearing these days. And that goes specifically to the drums, the way they’re recorded.
You can almost tell when a piece of music was recorded by the way the drums sound, just through certain trends and technologies that developed, such as the way certain reverbs have been used in recording the hi-hat, kick, or snare. So for my record, I didn’t want any particular emphasis on the drums or any aspect of the drums. I actually wanted to work against the rock attitude of drums—the big kick and snare. Most of the drums were recorded with a single microphone, or maybe a few microphones. And I only had two tracks of drums pretty much through the whole record.
MD: Was that more for aesthetic purposes or in protest to contemporary recording?
Bill: You can argue both points, so I won’t. But really, when you get right down to it, my motivations are always musical. I could probably come up with some clever things to say about what I do, and to a degree, the way my drums were recorded is intentionally contrary. But there also are very practical reasons for doing it this way. I have a rehearsal studio in downtown Seattle where I have my drums set up, and I largely recorded my drums there. I have a cheap little stereo mic, and I’d play through that into my DAT machine. I’d bring the tape home, listen through, find some bits that I felt sounded decent, loop them up on my sampler, and then start laying stuff on top. Some of them were for songs already written and some eventually went to songs that had yet to be written. But I recorded all of them for the purposes of using the drum parts on this record.
MD: If you’re only using one mic, where do you place it?
Bill: Well, that depends. I place it where there’s the best balance within the drumkit, within the recorded sound, so no one particular aspect of the drums is featured. I have a small Gretsch kit—20″ kick with 10″ and 12″ power toms on a stand and two 16″ floor toms. There are very slightly different alternate tunings on the floor toms. It’s kind of like having one drum, but I can do figures on two that I can’t do with one, and I like the impact of a 16″ more than an18″.
MD: Your cymbals are very understated.
Bill: My good man, if you listen closely, you won’t hear any cymbals on my record. Oh, I take that back. There’s a cymbal on the song “Spy Thriller.” I don’t often use cymbals. I have a nice old Zildjian K ride cymbal I use sometimes.
But I wanted to see what would happen without cymbals: Where would I go? What would I do for emphasis? What would I do to heighten the music? Once, as a drummer, you move yourself away from the role of placing emphasis—if, indeed, there’s a need for this—then you must have faith that it will come out somewhere else, perhaps through another instrument. It might be that the song is structured in such a way that the emphasis is built into it and it doesn’t need that punctuation.
I’ve been playing this way for years with my own music, so I’m not conscious of the absence. It’s almost second nature to me. This all stems from wanting to go against drumming clichés and the sorts of things drummers will do without thinking about it. Within the idiom of rock drums, there are some things that are typical, and it interests me to work against typical things. One of the ways of dealing with this is by removing an aspect that makes things easy.
If a drummer’s interested in creativity, sometimes throwing in an obstacle, or taking away a crutch, is a good way to go. By removing part of that learned motion and expected sound, the rest of your approach is bound to change.
MD: One of the interesting aspects of your solo record is your blend and alternation of acoustic drums and drum machines. What dictated the choice of voices for you?
Bill: Sometimes I’ll have a specific sound I’m going for, and oftentimes it’s just some strange haunting in my imagination that I’m trying to figure out how to bring out. Sometimes I’m grasping to start with something—anything—and I just start twisting and bending, and I go from there.
In almost every case, I start recording by putting the drums down. But there’s a song at the end of the record called “Hanging Gardens,” which was recorded apart from the rhythm track. The rhythm track was recorded and put on tape, then I recorded the song without listening to the rhythm track, and then I synched them up. The way we did it was I played the chords on keyboards and Robert [Fripp] was playing along on guitar, and the song was completely built up without the drums, and it fell where it fell. It didn’t have a direct rhythmic relationship. But there definitely is some relationship between the drums and the other instruments, and the tension that comes out of that is really wonderful.
MD: As contrary as you were with the way you recorded the drums, were you trying to be more precise or particular about the other instruments?
Bill: The record was put together very quickly. But at the same time, there’s nothing on there that didn’t get examined very, very closely. I wanted it to really have a feel of performance, but there’s a lot of programming on there, too.
I also relinquished some control to the other people who performed on the record. There came a point where I just got tired of myself and was in need of other points of view.
MD: I know this is your first stab at lead vocals, and I think your voice lends sort of a dark, British feel to the record.
Bill: It’s really funny you say that, because one of the comments I heard right away was that the English wouldn’t like it because it sounds too American, and Americans wouldn’t like it because it sounds too European. But there was no conscious effort to make the record sound that way. Actually, I really hate it when Americans sing with English accents, so I made sure to pronounce my “r’s.”
MD: Let’s talk about The Repercussions of Angelic Behavior, with Robert and Trey Gunn. For a record of improvised music, it’s amazingly tight and cohesive.
Bill: I gotta say that when we were recording that record, I was very confused by it. We did this immediately after fifteen straight days of recording Birth of a Giant. There was a lot of stress in my life at the time, too, so I was really beat. We’d play for twenty minutes or half an hour or whatever, then go back and listen to the tape. I was hearing all kinds of things in my playing I didn’t like. It was just really weird. Then we’d go back and do some more, and we did this for three straight days.
There were some really exciting moments and there were some really desperately depressing moments. But as I’ve come to live with the record, it’s really come alive for me and I like it quite a bit. We’re recommending that people listen to the disc in random-play mode. There’s this one piece that’s kind of slow rock, almost Zeppelin-y, and it has a very A-B-A-B feel to it, like it was written that way. I was really excited by that.
MD: Is that the most stretched-out you’ve ever been on record in terms of your drumming performance?
Bill: Yes, certainly on record. I was in the studio with two monsters—Trey and Robert—who’ve had the advantage of working together for ten years. They’re a dynamic duo, and I’m just on my little Gretsch kit trying to keep up. But it was true improv in the sense that, when we started, none of us had any idea where it was going to go.
I think the music we ended up with really surprised us. On a couple of the pieces, we recorded as a trio, then overdubbed ourselves as another trio on top of that. So they have two versions of each of us. The effect of that on my playing was that when I recorded the first track, I had to think ahead and be aware of what I planned on doing on the second track. It forced me to listen closer to myself, as well as listen closer to the other guys and be aware of the relationship. Improvisation is a skill of being on your toes, of being in the present. But most of the time, it was really all about going for it.
MD: Let’s go back further into your career. You’re not exactly a session player, but you’ve been part of many different projects, in addition to your long stay in Ministry. How did it all start for you?
Bill: I started out in music through neighborhood bands, even as a pre-teenager. I wanted nothing to do with school music programs—to me, they seemed outrageously square—and I wasn’t at all into practicing the drums. At one point, I even sold my drums because I didn’t want to play anymore. I bought a guitar and taught myself to play it. I also took piano lessons for ten years.
At twelve years old, I’d decided music was what I was going to do with my life, and I really wanted to become a guitar player. But at some point I was asked to join another neighborhood punk band as a drummer. You could follow the trail back a number of years and say I’m a drummer now because, at the time I joined these bands, all the other instruments were taken. I mean, how many times have you heard that story? It happens a lot, and in a sense, that happened with me. Today I’m known primarily as a drummer. But in 1988 I did an entire tour with Ministry as a guitar player. And I’ve never abandoned the other things I do.
MD: You said you knew very early on that you wanted a life as a musician. Did you ever move out of Seattle to try to make that happen?
Bill: Oh, of course. For many years, before Ministry, I was in a group called The Blackouts. They existed from 1979 to 1984 or ’85, and in 1981 we moved out of Seattle. In 1981, if you were a band with ambition, you sure didn’t stick around Seattle. It was at the edge of the world. There was a really thriving and exciting local music scene, but it didn’t make it out of the area, and we were interested in making it out of here.
So we moved to Boston, because we didn’t know any better. Those were two miserable years for me. I lived in the most rancid apartment I ever lived in, with far too many people. The area wasn’t very welcoming, personally, but we played a lot. We had some nice gigs, and we ended up meeting Ministry and doing a tour with them. And when The Blackouts broke up, three of us went to Chicago to work with Al Jourgensen [Ministry founder and front man].
MD: You stayed in Ministry quite a long time. Did you enjoy your time in the group and find it musically satisfying?
Bill: There were a lot of interesting and exciting things that happened, and there were a lot of things that weren’t so interesting or exciting. In the early days there was a lot of energy, a lot going on, a lot of opportunities to record.
If I were to suggest any record that might be more reflective of me than the others, that would be The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste. I spent a lot of time working on that record. My memory of making it is that Paul [Barker, bassist] wasn’t around much. I don’t know, maybe it was depression, but he didn’t seem to want to work much, and I did a lot on that record.
The other records always took three hundred years to make. I would work on them for a while until I was finished with what I was doing, and then I’d leave. The record would come out eons later and be entirely different from where I’d left it. Those things went beyond my capacity to be patient, and things weren’t going particularly well within the group when I left. But a lot of the work I get today stems from the personal contacts I made during my time in Ministry, which is the most visible thing I’ve ever done, and I’m grateful for that.
MD: When you started branching outside of Ministry, did you find these situations refreshing and enjoyable?
Bill: To a degree. I don’t have many particularly satisfying experiences, in that sense, because a lot of these projects are hard work. In a lot of ways, it’s a struggle to do something really good. Actually, yeah, I think a lot about enjoying what I do, but I don’t approach it from the aspect of enjoying it. I mean, I like what I do while I’m doing it—I don’t mind it—but I would like to enjoy it more. Oftentimes it’s just the struggle to play well, finding the right thing. I’m an outrageously picky person and I’m not easily satisfied.
MD: Does Birth of a Giant reflect that?
Bill: I’m sure it does. I don’t think we ever got to a point of agonizing. In large part, it was a matter of problem-solving. It might have been an instance of a song needing something, and I just couldn’t come up with what that something was.
There’s a song called “Secret Cafe” that was interesting in that sense—very difficult to complete, probably because it started with the fewest number of ideas. It was kind of an endless search, a waiting for the right idea to come along, and I didn’t know where to go. So instead of doing nothing, you just start doing something, and it’ll either lead you somewhere good or smash you into a dead end. I smashed into a lot of dead ends in that song.
MD: Has your style of drumming evolved over the years?
Bill: I would say it devolved. In one respect, you could say being the drummer in Ministry was a very functional role. There was a certain idea and aesthetic within that group that required a certain style, and it was very beat-heavy, so my playing went that way.
I used to be a lot more free and improvisational. Part of what I initially enjoyed about drumming was that I could get away with murder, or at least I thought I could. I didn’t have to play the same things all the time, like going from A to C to G-minor, like a guitar player must. I could play other things. I think I was a busy player—too busy, as a matter of fact. And then Ministry required a different point of view, a Chris Frantz/Talking Heads point of view, which is, “This is what’s required. Now go for it.” Chris just amazed me in how he could just do that so consistently.
Since leaving Ministry, my playing has changed a lot, and much of that has come about from that recording I made with Trey Gunn and Robert Fripp. I’ve also been working with another improvisational group in Seattle called Wound, where I have to really focus on dynamics and playing lightly. I don’t have a lot of experience playing with that kind of control. My work in the past five years has primarily been focused on playing very controlled, in a very relaxed way, so the playing is really smooth. My approach was pretty much full-on all the time—just sit down and go—so it’s something I have to work hard on. But it’s worth looking into because there are a lot more options available.
MD: That’s the first you’ve mentioned of working on your drumming.
Bill: I took my first real drum lessons in 1992 from the Seattle Drum School. I just realized I’d reached this wall and I wanted to get better. From that point on I’ve taken my playing very seriously. My main problem has always been that I’m an outrageously stubborn person. If I’d taken lessons ten years earlier, I would be a far different player now. I wouldn’t say I regret not taking lessons. But I would undoubtedly have more facility and more ability, and within that I would have more choices. A lot of my approach lately has been to discover and pay attention to my weak spots.
I can’t speak for every drummer, but when you’re talking weak spots, I think many rock drummers could go straight to the left hand. It makes sense if you think that the left hand is playing at least half the notes that the right hand is playing, just by virtue of the right hand keeping time.
Another primary thing that changed my drumming radically is the way I sit. I wasn’t really able to sit comfortably at my kit, largely because I’m a twitchy person and generally uncomfortable in my own skin. So I actually engaged in a sitting practice. That involves noticing how you’re sitting, where the tension is going in your body, and how your body feels while you’re sitting.
Other people probably don’t have to think about these things because they can sit rather comfortably. I’ve experimented with the height and position of the seat, and my setup changes constantly. Just recently, I pulled my seat back so that my legs are lengthened in front of me. My feet hit on the pedals at different angles, and that changes balance and the tension in specific muscles, and it changes everything on top as well.
The thing that annoys me about drumming is that there are so many variables, and how do you know what way is right? Ten years ago I could barely move my ankles—just because of years and years of playing the wrong way—and I’ve literally spent the last decade loosening up my ankles. I’m more comfortable now than I have ever been. I’ve had a couple of wonderful breakthroughs in my playing, which I credit directly to sitting properly. I know a fellow who is a teacher of the “Alexander technique,” which is a way to rid yourself of any habits of mind and body that are no longer serving you. The aim is to free your most effective reflexes, which allows a clear path to your intention during any kind of performance. It’s a very practical approach to knowing your mind and body. And if before I die I can stop making anymore “drummer faces” while I’m playing, I’ll die a happy man.