Bill Bruford ought to familiar enough to MD readers by now. Bill’s first feature interview appeared in the Jan. /Feb. ’79 MD, and it was consistent requests from readers, plus constant Ask A Pro questions that prompted my getting back with Bill for round two. When King Crimson regrouped and released Discipline, Bruford fans were hit with yet another Bruford approach to drumming. Abandoning the traditional use of cymbals and adding on the Simmons electronic drums, Bruford’s drumming sounded like a crossbreeding of a vibraphone and a drumset.
I spoke with Bill during a King Crimson engagement in Maryland. Bill asked if the interview would be dealing with equipment Questions mainly, and I said no. But, I did want to find out about Bill’s use of the Simmons drums. In opening the interview, Bill explained the view of equipment/music relationships.
“It’s music first and equipment second,” he said, “depending on what the musical demands are, rather than bringing the drumkit first and making the drumkit dictate the type of music. Just because you’ve just got these instruments set up in a certain order means the music therefore must be like this. I’d rather do it the other way around. Have some music and then think, ‘Ah! What would go nicely with this?’ “
We covered a lot of ground. Towards the end of this interview, Bill asked me, “Is this interview okay? This isn’t all particularly about drumming. Well it is a drumming kind of article. It’s advice and feelings about drummers, generally, in 1983.”
SF: Your set now incorporates the Simmons drums.
BB: I use quite a bit of that. It’s become quite useful with King Crimson. It’s a hybrid kit of half electric/half acoustic. It has an “internal” acoustic kit which is fairly conventional: a Tama bass drum and Tama snare; a 14″ Roto-Tom and a big Tama Gong Tom.
SF: Aren’t you also using a set of Octobans?
BB: They’re Dragon Drums actually, but I also have a set of Octobans. I often change as I like.
SF: Having no earlier audio reference, when I listened to Discipline and Beat, I didn’t hear anything that jumped out as sounding like the Simmons kit.
BB: What do you think the last track on side one of Beat is? It’s all Simmons toms. Entirely so. The whole track is founded on melody drumming. You might like to check out “The Waiting Man” on Beat. The only reason that tune is played is because I had the Simmons drums up to certain pitches and was playing a melody on them. That melody then became a [Chapman] Stick pad; a bass part. The bass starts and then I make an entry with a harmony to the bass part. Then the whole group shifts tonality, the drums shift tonality and off we go again. Then we stop the tape, shift tonality, start up again and away we go again on a third, fourth and a fifth. You hear melody drums playing away and they all neatly change tonality for you. That is a virtue of a Simmons.
SF: Can you change the tonality by the flick of a button?
BB: You used to have to do it by pressing four buttons, so that all your four tom-toms would shift to the next preset program. But now I have that on a footswitch on the floor. I can take my left foot from the bass drum pedal and activate that footswitch, which will move all the tom-toms onto their next preset program. That means that if the group has selected an E tonality, we can all shift on to the next tonality—an A for example—at the same point. So I feel more involved with the music playing these drums.
There’s no other drum, that I can think of, that could possibly be quite like the Simmons. It is pitchable and it has a peculiar melodic sound to it which is quite nice. Electronics come in various forms. It’s not always “white noise.” It’s just that the electronic sound that I was producing happened to be very light and pretty sounding on that particular tune. We’re using about 11 Simmons pads now in the show. Adrian Belew, the singer, and I actually start off the show standing and drumming at six Simmons pads, which is very entertaining.
In a way, the Simmons kit has come to me at quite a useful time. It’s dictating some of the way King Crimson is going.
SF: Had you been using the Simmons kit before King Crimson reformed?
BB: No. I got into it around the same time. It’s been a lot of hard work. But, on the whole, it’s been a lot of use in my particular musical situation. I couldn’t speak for anybody else.
SF: Robert Fripp seems to have very definite ideas about the function of a drummer and how drums should sound in a band. How do you deal with his feelings and ideas?
BB: Robert has always had quite strong feelings about drummers, really, which I liked. He used to make very broad statements and general ideas like, “Why are you playing the cymbal there?” There would be no real good reason why I was playing the cymbal there. “Don’t lean on cymbals.” You know the way drummers quite often lean on cymbals? Sometimes it does a drummer good to listen to refreshingly candid comments from people, like guitarists, who have maybe no knowledge of drumming in the sense that we have. They are, therefore, not hidebound by its convention. They’re able to say, “Well, what are you doing this for? It’s absolutely meaningless. I can’t understand it.” Quite often these people are right.
My function in King Crimson is very often to provide rhythmic movement which the others would wish to play with. It’s loose, very loose. It might just be playing on a xylo-slit drum or two notes on a marimba. The “drummer” in Crimson has always needed to have the broadest outlook on percussion. He may not play at all. He may just play a triangle. He might be playing sheets of steel or melody drums. Anything goes. It’s one of the most unconventional rock ‘n’ roll drum gigs available.
Whenever I go into King Crimson I’m prepared to change. It’s not frustrating so much as one can see one’s own limitations. You have to work your way around them. In a way, in a band like this we’re saying, “Here are some restrictions. We have decided and agreed not to do the following: A,B,C,D,E,F and G. We are not going to do those. Therefore, drummer—look to your instrument and see how you can play something else apart from those things. Work around the subject. Come up with something different; something fresh.” That can be difficult for drummers, because they’ve got their set plans on what they’re going to play. Suddenly what’s required of the drummer is broken down in his face. All his practicing of licks, set beats and stuff he’s worked out, suddenly seem like so much nonsense and are relatively redundant. He has to think again about what it is he’s playing and why he’s playing it. That’s why it does you good to go into King Crimson for a few years every now and then. I now play very differently in this band from the way I played in my own band.
SF: What do you see as the major change in your playing?
BB: It’s hard to say. I’m very much a textural player now. It’s the right textures in the right places that’s required here. Much of the drumming is simple. I see my feet—more and more—playing a consistent “dance” pattern. However, that might only be my lower body. It may be that my upper body is, in fact, now more complex in many ways. As the feet get simpler, it’s possible that the hands get more complex. The sticks that used to be between two sound sources of cymbal and snare, perhaps are now between four sound sources. Left hand moving constantly back and forth between, say, two Simmons pads. The right hand might be playing some pattern between snare and boo-bams or something, perhaps in a multiple meter over the dance groove in the feet. One is always trying to present the simple and the complex at the same time.
SF: Was there a time at the beginning of King Crimson when new drum concepts were being discussed, and you had to woodshed some new things?
BB: Yes. I would say that’s true. It was quite coincidentally useful that I’d come across the Simmons and other instruments that I like to use now, at the same time the band was forming. Robert came around to my house and I said, “Well, listen. I’ve got these things.” He said, “Well, that’s just as well you’ve got these things, because I had in mind this textural drumming. I want an almighty clattering sound like 40 Ghanian drummers. But, I want it to be electric and also I want it, etc. etc.” It is incumbent upon the drummer in Crimson to come up with “an almighty clattering sound.” I like being spoken to in those terms rather than have a set militaristic part written out which says, “Here is a flam. Now, I want a flam-triplet here, la de da de da.”
So, in a way, we do very little unison or ensemble phrasing figures, which I would’ve done more in my own band. Now they’re large, broad sweeps of color. For a while it’s white heat, and then for a bit more it’s this almighty clattering sound, and then five minutes later it’s a very pretty texture of the xylo-slit drum or something like that.
That’s where I draw the distinction between Crimson and my band, which I now, in many ways, consider to be quite dated in concept. A worthwhile organization, I hasten to add, but nonetheless very dated in concept, in that it was dealing, really, with pure notes. The interest in Crimson is really not so much in the notes. They are merely the things which enable you to play a texture.
SF: You’re one of the few drummers who continues to keep an open mind about new areas of percussion as you continue to evolve.
BB: I don’t have any defensive position to maintain. It’s not as if I’m the world’s fastest snare drummer, whereby I have to play that all the time or else I’m sunk! I’m trying to consider myself as a musician first and as a drummer second. I would just like to make the group work. If that means that all that’s required of the drummer is two bass drum beats in the last measure—that’s fine. That doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t feel that it’s incumbent upon me to display my drumming ability every five minutes. That’s the opposite, in a way, of a lot of music that happened in the ’70s, which was designed for soloists to attract attention to themselves. When they played they were dealing with their expertise.
I think one of the bases we have in this new King Crimson is a feeling of communism. I don’t mean political Communism. But, a kind of communal feeling. More of a kind of “village” type of feeling whereby we are all simply amateur musicians. Non-specialists. We’re getting together to play fairly modest parts which, when put together, are greater than the sum of the whole. A small orchestra.
With Discipline we had a Gamalan tape and there was talk about Gamalan music, which is very interesting. A lot of that spirit is in the band. I don’t know whether it’s diffused now somewhat, but that’s how it started about a year and a half ago. The cut “Discipline” off the first album is the flag tune of that idea, in a way. Nobody there moves out of line. Everybody has an exactly equal part which shifts in and out of everybody else’s part. At no time must anybody attract attention to themselves. It’s subverting your own sense and your own ego for the common good.
SF: Did you have any reservations about rejoining Crimson?
BB: No, I never have any reservations about joining King Crimson. It’s one of the few gigs in rock ‘n’ roll which is remotely open for drummers to change things. In fact, King Crimson exists to change things. It’s hardly likely that we’re going to appear on the top of the chart. We might by some accident, but it’s not as though we’re going to turn up on Solid Gold. We exist because many musicians look to us to try and describe or make some effort into the future, which the other musicians may not be able to do because of their Top-40 style gig.
SF: Fripp made the distinction between “First Division Bands, Second Division Bands” and “Third Division Bands.”
BB: He’s keen on those kind of layers. Far be it from me to explain what he’s talking about, but that’s not a bad idea. You can exist on a number of musical levels to achieve certain musical ends.
SF: He said that a “Third Division” band would be into research and development; would have an artistic lifestyle and would be civilized. But, they didn’t earn a living. “Second Division” would be professionals being able to earn a living but they didn’t change the world. “First Division” would be bands with access to the latest, current ideas and best musicians, and were part of a popular culture.
BB: I think King Crimson’s in there somewhere. We’re riding a rather difficult balancing act which I enjoy a lot. Between being almost part of a popular culture—and it’s possible that we could become very popular if we did certain things—and also by being extremely inventive musicians, we hope to define the future a little bit and offer some suggestions to what we think musicians might be playing on bandstands in four or five years.
SF: Were you finding that music over the last five years or so has been pretty dull?
BB: Oh yeah. From what is accepted in America, that’s true. It’s an irony that the popular drummer and the popular musician who’s involved in this popular medium, might not find it to be the most entertaining. I’d rather participate than observe. I contribute to it. But, most of my interest in listening comes from outside of the huge popular medium. I’m listening to Jack DeJohnette, Black Uhuru, New Wave English bands, ethnic music and other stuff. None of which is in the mainstream of the great Midwest rock ‘n’ roll ideas in America, which have become very conservative. And very hard, therefore, for people like King Crimson to make any imprint there. We’re just not allowed in. We do make an imprint, thanks to the efforts of managers, record companies and so forth. But, the gig I have as the drummer in King Crimson is one of the few gigs in rock ‘n’ roll where it’s even remotely possible to play anything in 17/16 and stay in a decent hotel. Mercifully, kids have come to trust us. They’re not sure what they’re going to get with an evening of King Crimson, but it will be value for money, and the musicians up there will at least be making some kind of effort to be honest, rather than going through a set pattern or a set routine.
SF: From the mid-’60s up until the early ’70s, there were a lot of drummers in rock ‘n’ roll, like yourself, who had a unique style and sound. We’ve lost that. We have a situation now where most of the drummers—at least on record—all sound the same.
BB: Isn’t that interesting? I think it has something to do with the way music is bought and sold. It’s called standardizing the product. I should imagine—although I’m no businessman—that to buy and sell things efficiently, you need a fairly standard product. Or at least a product that is carefully in one of four or five bags, be it disco, jazz, rock or something else. Therefore, the drummers became standardized too. What was required drumming in any kind of black disco band—very few people could tell it apart. They’re all identical sounding. If you were from Mars you’d think all these bands sounded the same if you tuned into any FM radio station in the Midwest. You couldn’t distinguish the drummer in one band from the drummer in another. It’s a standard product you have there.
King Crimson exists to try to be different from all that. But, it’s hard going. There’s no doubt about it. The reason music became like that in the late ’70s was the buying and selling of the music. It’s easier to buy and sell it if everybody does the same thing.
SF: Yet, the musicians that really make a mark are the ones who do do something different than everybody else.
BB: Absolutely. The rebel and the renegade. We have a whole album out called Beat, which is very loosely about the Beat generation.
SF: Who’s idea was that?
BB: It was just a subject of discussion that was around in the band, about the similarity in intent. Actually, Adrian Belew is, in many ways, a 1982 version of a 1949 Kerouac. Very hit-the-cards, very full of enthusiasm and naivete in a way, which is absolutely great. Robert became very interested in the Beat movement and did a lot of research and reading. The album is in no way a concept album. It’s just that the inspiration for it came from that movement.
SF: Have you read any of Jack Kerouac’s books?
BB: I’ve read a couple, and Robert’s probably read them all by now. But, that’s where the lyric idea for Beat came from. The last track on the album is “Requiem,” which is a requiem for those Beat writers, really. It’s amazing how these movements fade and ebb and flow so fast. These people should not be forgotten because they were all visionaries, and it’s nice for us to refer back 30 years sometimes and say, “Hey, the spirit we feel now is the spirit I’m sure they felt then.” Young and enthusiastic, basically. In recessionary times, countries revert to the safe, the secure and the conservative. In pop music there’s very little going on in the mass America popular culture now that has anything fresh about it at all. You’ll find as cultures get more confident, and there’s more money around, experimentation comes to the surface again. To get a recording contract now is very hard. Then to say, “Listen, I’d like to have a contract but I’d also like to play in 17/16…”
SF: Was that tough for King Crimson?
BB: No. Warner Brothers is effective and long suffering. Everybody knows by now what King Crimson stands for. In effect, we have persevered and made our own little patch where we’re able to exist and pay the bills. I think that’s handsome. That’s a worthwhile balancing act. Getting a hearing of some sort and getting no hearing at all. I mean, I want to play in 17/16 but I don’t want to do that in my closet! I want to do it and see the enjoyment it gives other people. Communicate the fact that I enjoy it so much that other people are going to pick up on this too. I’m keen to get a hearing, which means I’m going to have to work hard to come to pounds and support records and the whole industry thing.
SF: Have you done any work with the Linn or Oberheim drum machines?
BB: Yes I have. This is a big debate in England. Suddenly the machines are better than the drummers. So, what the hell are the drummers going to do? They’re going to have to think quick! They’re going to have to figure out why they’re needed in a band, and what is it that they can bring to the music that the Linn can’t. Which came first? Did the Linn machine make all the drummers sound the same? Or did the drummers who were all sounding the same give rise to their own devil: The Linn machine.
SF: I think it’s the latter. If a studio needs disco beats for a track, why pay top dollar for a drummer to do what a machine can do?
BB: Yeah. It’s amazing, isn’t it? The only possible way you can compete with something like this is to take it on headfirst. Do things that it can’t possibly do.
SF: What sort of work have you done with it?
BB: We sometimes used it and then removed it. That can be quite fun. You can play off of it and then remove it, leaving just the thing that you improvised on top. In a way it can take the chore out of the having-to-keep-time routine.
SF: Have you used that to work up any of the tunes on Beat or Discipline?
BB: Well, that might be giving things away! I’ve also programmed some pretty weird beats into it which hasn’t actually come out on record anywhere. I’ve programmed patterns into it that would actually take me a couple of weeks to work up decently myself. I’ve used that for a pattern that’s non-repetitive for 20 measures or something. A long, long flow of drumming that doesn’t repeat until after about 40 seconds of music. I play loosely and texturally on top of that.
But, I don’t feel a threat. I’m not particularly bothered because I feel melodically and harmonically interested, as well as rhythmically interested in music. I actually rather like these machines. Now, people in England are rigging them up through the Simmons, and you get them to trigger other machines. I was recently in on my friend Dave Stewart’s record. He was the keyboard player in my band. He was making his own lp and the sheer electronic technology there is staggering. You have Linns mating with Prophet Tens, mating with Simmons drum machines, back into another Linn. Like a breeding ground of electronics all feeding each other. It’s extraordinary.
Also, the drummer is a visual character. The Linn has a very low stage presence. There is a great feeling of communality about watching a guy strike something. Tonight people will come and enjoy seeing cymbals and drums struck physically, which is a great thing. I don’t think the Linn cuts it on stage much.
Drummers used to breathe. They used to know about breathing, about whispering and about thundering. I’m not so sure the Linn breathes, the better and lighter rock ‘n’ roll groups do breathe and have movement in them which is hard to program into that machine. I know there’s a small element of the human factor that you can program into it, but it’s just not bothering me at all. I don’t know how other drummers are feeling. Maybe it really is a shame that some drummers aren’t getting work because of the machine.
SF: Rick Mattingly had an interesting observation about it. He said that it wasn’t too many years ago when you’d have a bass drummer and a snare drummer in a band or orchestra. The invention of the bass drum pedal effectively knocked 50% of the drummers out of a gig.
BB: That’s interesting. I think you’re breeding new people here now. It’s becoming an odd privilege to be able to sit around and say, “Hey, I’m a drummer.” That’s a dangerous privilege. You should consider yourself as a musician who is interested in playing with other musicians in a group. If some of the functions necessary for the group are taken over by machines, that’s well and good. It might be some of the rhythmic functions via a Linn or something else. The musician should look to himself to provide something on top of that. Try to think musically as a musician, rather than as just a drummer. In the 1990s I don’t think you’re going to be able to sit around and say, “Hey, I’ve got the fastest flam in the West, and that’s all I do.” Or, “I’m a specialist drummer.” There are going to be very few gigs for those people.
But, there will be gigs for people who know about sound combinations, about effective textural changes, about harmony and melody on mallet instruments, about piano, about how to stage dramatic effects musically; pacing and all those kind of things. The sort of things that I would hope to bring to the group.
SF: Are you still playing keyboards?
BB: I play some keyboards. Not very good. I’m not lost when the tune starts. I know where the chords are and why the chords are doing what they’re doing.
SF: Many drummers don’t realize how important that knowledge is.
BB: It’s going to be increasingly important for the future. In 1990 it will help a lot if—as a drummer—you’re a full percussionist and can play a wide variety of things. And have a wide variety of ideas up your sleeve, rather than trying to out-Linn the Linn, which is going to be increasingly hard. These machines will be able to play incredibly complex patterns. The drummer is going to have to revert to these other things I’ve mentioned.
SF: As you’re playing—either in ensemble or during a solo—aren’t you thinking more along melodic lines than rhythmic lines?
BB: I’m thinking of cooperating with the melody players. I’m trying to underline their melody rather than their rhythmic phrasing. Many times I’m underlying them melodically or harmonically more than rhythmically. That’s a useful function of having melody drums or tuneable drums. It’s complicated.
SF: Max Roach used to do that on a four-piece set. I think drummers are taught rhythm so much that it then becomes hard for them to think along melodic and/or harmonic lines.
BB: I think maybe you’re right. It’s very easy for drummers to follow an avenue that’s just of technical competence that involves getting better and better seven-stroke rolls. Somehow the drummer feels that if his seven-stroke roll is good enough, that will guarantee him a career, success and accolades of some sort. That’s not necessarily true. These technical things are only part of a whole. The other parts must be there too—the sensibility to know what to do with the damn thing once you’ve got it!
SF: Was there ever a time in your life where you made a conscious study of the melodies and lyrics of the “standard” tunes?
BB: Very good. Yes I did, right before I wrote my first album. I spent a lot of time with jazz harmony books at the piano, figuring out melodies; why melodies fall in certain ways; what’s useful about a melody and what other musicians hear in melodies that’s different from the way drummers hear. When I first started writing tunes, I used to write what I thought was a melody. I’d play it to some guitarist and he’d say, “What the hell is this?” I’d realize that his concept of melody was not only very different from mine, but probably more well-rounded. A singer probably has an even better concept of melody; much more natural and conversational. My melodies tended to be very fragmented and “spikey,” and perhaps rhythmically overcomplex. I didn’t really understand it.
By the time you’ve shown other musicians 30 or 40 tunes, you’re getting the hang of it, and you realize that it’s essential that drummers understand how other musicians feel about these tunes. That was the thinking by my three or four solo records. I was trying to learn from the experience of other people and get some distance from the drumkit. Life past the cymbals. As you reach out four feet past your cymbals; to have that kind of focus. There are people who exist beyond that. It’s surprising, the number of young drummers who get stuck completely with life this side of the cymbals and never get past it.
SF: When you’re listening, for instance, to Jack DeJohnette play, are you hearing melodies on his drums, or are you thinking, “My God! He just played the most incredible independent double-paradiddle variation”?
BB: On no! I could never detect any of Jack DeJohnette’s paradiddle variations. I do hear melody in his drumming. Certainly. But, what I hear which is just so wonderful, to me, is endless variety. The endless rush and stream of rhythmic variations, which is just very, very attractive to me. And melodic variations as well, but I suppose principally rhythmic because I’m not melodically that attuned yet. The variety and the variation is so exciting in that music. I think Jack’s really got the ball right now. It’s funny the way you watch some drummers ebb and flow through their creative lives. They make statements and then they disappear for a while. Then they resurface. Max Roach is having a great resurgence. I’ve met him recently. He’s been to King Crimson shows. He’s just like a kid, right down in the front. I think he’s bought himself a Simmons kit. It’s terrific that Max is as broad minded as that. I really hope that in a life in the rock ‘n’ roll industry—which is the one I’m in—that I can emerge as a 50- or 60-year-old at the end of it all with as much dignity intact as Max. There aren’t any role models for people like me. Rock ‘n’ rollers are just supposed to take too much coke and disappear. Unfortunately, I don’t want to disappear and I’m in the best of health and I’ve got lots of ideas! I want to have a dignified career in rock ‘n’ roll and look back over the body of my work for, say, 50 years and 70 albums and say, “Well, the guy who played on the 70th album has come a long way from the guy who played on the first album.” I want longevity in a career and, in a way, Max is a terrific inspiration. He’s a role model to me as he is to lots of people. When I see people like Blakey and Elvin and Max, I can see that I want to be doing the same thing when I’m that age, if rock ‘n’ roll will permit it.
SF: Well, rock ‘n’ roll is roughly only 25 years old. Do you have a good knowledge of the roots of rock, the blues and country drummers?
BB: Only through your magazine, really! Your magazine is definitely disseminating a lot of information that I pick up on all the time. I’ve always been interested in all kinds of drumming. But, I’m not as well researched as I should be. I don’t know as much about the subject as I make out in a way. I’ve got gaping great holes in my technical ability, and gaping great holes in my historical understanding of the music.
SF: What music did you listen to as a kid?
BB: Jazz. I was one of the few people I knew in my part of England who was into jazz. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones came and went and they just didn’t make any imprint because of the jazz. I was so much into jazz records and I was in a jazz quartet at my school. I grew up playing brushes on a small jazz drumkit playing bebop tunes. I thought that’s what music was until I was about 18 or 19.
SF: What was the first rock music that turned you on?
BB: A very potent and heavy music that was around England in 1965-’66: Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin and Dick Heckstall-Smith; Graham Bond’s Organization. A terrific kind of high-octane crossbreed. It was around the time of Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz album. They did a lot of that music. Very rough r&b with very heavy jazz overtones, that was just terrific! I thought, “God, this stuff is very wild.” I got slipped via that into the rock ‘n’ roll side for some peculiar reason, although I didn’t set out to distinguish between being a jazz player and a rock player. I think I’m a bit of both. I don’t actually play jazz and I don’t think I have a jazz feel. On the other hand, I have such a strong feeling for that music that it comes out. It’s adventurousness appeals to me intellectually as well as physically.
SF: It’s interesting that you touched on the image of a rock ‘n’ roll musician as being one of wine, women and song.
BB: Well, that’s the dumber variety of the species actually. Much more dangerous than the wine, women and song—although that’s dangerous enough—is the overwhelming conservatism of it. The reason a lot of rock players take to wine, women and song is because it helps to anesthetize them from the obvious fact that they’re never really going to play anything. That’s the tragedy there, that they might one day have had a dream, but that dream isn’t fulfilled. I had a dream. But, in a way, my dream is being fulfilled. What I’m actually doing, I’m stretched to the best of my ability. I’m actually doing onstage the best I can think of. I’m not harboring in the back of my subconscious, “Hey, when I get off this gig I’m going to do this other great gig.” I am what I am, and I do onstage—happily in front of thousands of people—my wildest fantasies on drums. I exorcise them. Which means I will probably not have to resort to wild women, booze and drugs because I do what I do.
SF: Aside from music, what keeps you motivated and forward thinking?
BB: The rest of the band. I feel quite close to this particular group of musicians. Robert is always a very stimulating person to work with. The conversation can get a little “acid” at times, but it’s never less than interesting. Somehow I don’t have any problem envisioning a future. I don’t run out of ideas. I’m an average guy who develops his own thoughts. I have my own mode of self-motivation which is hard to explain. It’s that being in the company of interesting musicians will make me an interesting musician. I like to be alongside people I admire and respect and that will provide me with the next day’s work. I can see what to do next. I think it’s when you sometimes buy out of that and say, “Well, hell. I know I’m not going to play any drums but it’s real good money.” That’s when your trouble starts. You must, if possible, stay attuned to what your fantasy is about drumming. That comes as cold comfort to people who can’t get record deals and the rest of it.
SF: Did you ever go through a period when you had to do gigs that really didn’t appeal to you?
BB: No. I’ve always been lucky enough to be in an interesting band. I was with Genesis for a while, which I personally didn’t find to be the most fulfilling gig. But, that wasn’t their fault. That was very tempting because it’s a very nice band to be in and an extremely well-paid job. I had to deliberately get up and walk out on that; to put myself in the cold. I knew I could’ve stayed there for quite a long while maybe if I’d just accepted my position as being a drummer.
SF: Was it mentally draining?
BB: Yeah, which manifested itself in a tremendously facetious attitude, which was, I’m sure, not at all what they wanted. I apologize publicly to them. To this day I’m embarrassed by the way I conducted myself.
SF: Did you realize what was happening to you?
BB: I realized exactly what was happening and I knew that it was incumbent upon me to get up and move for Genesis’ sake, and because if I wanted a future, I was going to have to drop myself in it in the deep end. Thereby, I went and wrote my own first record and started that. I’m very pleased that I did so. But there are times when you can see an inevitable path, up which you’re going, where maybe you should change. It may manifest itself in terms of earnings. You may, perhaps, have to turn your back on an extremely well-paid gig or the opportunity to make a lot of money. That’s probably happened to me on two or three occasions in my career.
SF: But it’s always been for the better?
BB: Oh absolutely! Because in return you get longevity and a sense of forward movement in your career.
SF: How does one maintain the balance of keeping artistic integrity and paying the bills?
BB: It’s a fine balancing act. What can I say? I really don’t know.
SF: Have you ever worked a day gig?
BB: I built a small section of the Seven Oaks Bypass in Kent, England. I can lay claim to about 100 meters of that. But, basically I was very lucky. I started professionally at 18 and went into a band that subsequently turned out to be a big, popular band. Although for the first three years it was extremely unpopular.
SF: What did you do for those three years to keep body and soul together?
BB: I had no commitments. I just had myself to feed and we slummed it. When you’re 18 or 17 you do anything, right? It’s no problem at all. We didn’t make any money and we didn’t spend any money. We just starved to death. Damn near. But, 17 through to 28 or 30, that’s alright. But by the time you’ve got a couple of kids and so forth, it’s true that you’re going to have to see some fruits of some success or take a steady day gig. I have a wife and two kids and lots of drumkits, and they all need feeding. So it is a balancing act, but everybody can only approach this in their own personal way. I have no recommendations at all. You just have to be damn careful and try to be as honest with yourself as possible. Otherwise, if you just go for the money gig all the time you’ll stop playing effectively. I want to continue and end up like Max Roach!
SF: I feel that one of the key reasons why music is at such a low state is because individuals aren’t willing to commit themselves, long term, to forming bands.
BB: The British used to do that all the time. When I joined a band, it was for life. We practically slit our wrists and mingled blood. It was a little group and come hell or high water, we were going to make it. The thought of anybody leaving or doing anything else at the same time seemed completely out of the question. It was extremely narrow-minded. The first five or six years of my playing career, I only played with eight musicians in two bands. We tried to develop this specialist music that we would be able to consider ours. In America they didn’t do that so much, and it was quite alright to have gigs on the side. In England, that was like having a lady on the side if you were married! It was almost like being untrue. The American attitude is healthier, where musicians get a better sense of themselves by mingling with other musicians and seeing themselves play in different contexts. I think that’s useful.
SF: To a degree. There was that same commitment to a band in America in the mid-’60s. But, it changed and everybody seemed to want to be a soloist.
BB: You don’t think there’s as much commitment among younger musicians?
SF: No. I see its effect in letters asking about the security of being a rock musician or a studio drummer.
BB: Yeah, that’s very tough. Everybody’s security conscious, and it will be so as long as the economy stinks. When the economy loosens up and there’s plenty of cash around—as there was when I started to be a drummer . . . I was a lucky guy. I started when there was plenty of cash around in the English scene. Everybody and his grandmother was making an album. You only had to be weird on it and it was a hit of some sort. This was post-Beatles; post-Sergeant Pepper. Also, there weren’t any drummers! There was only Ginger Baker and Carl Palmer. That left plenty of places for me to come in on. I could get recording right away. I could be in on a band that probably could pay the bills just about. In fact, Yes didn’t for a long time. But the band could at least get gigs and play a lot. We were encouraged to experiment. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Twelve years later in 1983 where (a) it’s very hard to get record deals and (b) we’ve heard in the interim a further 12-year’s worth of amazing drumming, ranging from Billy Cobham through the whole jazz thing into the weirder rock things, a lot of ideas have been covered. I would imagine it’s very hard being an 18-year-old who wants to start off in the industry. How the hell does he get his foot in there? There’s a lot of drumming been covered. You’ve either got to have better time than the Linn machine, or faster chops than Cobham, or better ideas than somebody or other, to make any kind of an imprint. I think it’s very, very tough.
SF: I guess the goal is “uniqueness.”
BB: I agree entirely. If you’re Fred Bloggs from Apartheid, Wisconsin or something—there is only one Fred Bloggs in the world. Somehow you have to locate your own heartbeat, which is different from everybody else’s. Your own fingerprint. And bring that to music so that we can all recognize you as being Fred Bloggs. You might not like my drumming, but at least I’m supposed to be Bill Bruford. Then you can take me or leave me. I don’t mind that either way. But, at least I can define myself for you and say, “Hey, here’s what I’m bringing to the music. I think this is a neat way to look at it. What do you think?” And you either say, “I think it stinks,” or you like it. That’s great! That’s how we all progress.
SF: In the last MD interview you did with Michael Shore, Michael mentions that you were involved with some blues bands.
BB: I started off in a little blues band.
SF: When I wrote The History of Rock Drumming, I received zero reader response from Parts 1 and 2 on the blues drummers and the country drummers. That showed me that the focus is off. Too many drummers today can’t even play an authentic blues. Yet, when a drummer learns to play the blues he learns how to keep a good beat, how to swing and he learns dynamics.
BB: Yeah. I’d agree with all three of those things. But, I always felt that I had no roots to my music when I started.
SF: But you did! You had Art Blakey, Max Roach . . .
BB: But were they my roots? I imported them. I mean, hell, I’m a white, middle-class English kid. I borrowed somebody else’s roots.
SF: But you didn’t have Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts as the foundation of your drumming.
BB: No, that’s right. I had stacks of Blue Note records.
SF: Yet, a lot of people will listen to you play, and rather than try to figure out where Bill Bruford came from and why you turned out as you did, they will start with you and not go back and try to develop their own style on the real foundation of drumming.
BB: I see what you mean. It helps a lot if you have an understanding of the background of that stuff. But, it is tough starting out, I imagine. It’s tough enough staying somewhat visible like King Crimson is. I think longevity is real hard to achieve nowadays; to keep a steady, consistent high standard of work where you look back over 20 albums and say, “Yeah, this stuff is progressing and it’s interesting.” That’s where the original term “progressive music” came from and now it’s meaningless. But, that’s what I thought all musicians did until I was about 19. I didn’t realize that there was anybody who didn’t want to progress. It seems like an odd thing. I always thought that Charli Persip and Max Roach were progressing. I could see that obvious thing in Tony Williams’ music. It was only until I came right into the popular culture that I began to feel this inherent conservatism in the thing and the recycling of ideas, which is very regressive. That’s what drummers really shouldn’t get into. Hopefully you have to try to fight that and stay out of the rut. Move to fresh musicians, new ideas and keep going if you possibly can.
I think sometimes when people look at me and say, “There’s a guy who’s made it”—I don’t see that at all. All I see is a large amount of work in front of me; that I have to swim quite fast to stay in the current thinking of drumming, which does move fast.
SF: You said that you value your association with great creative players. Can you cite any particular characteristics those great players have?
BB: Restlessness. Usually they don’t waste words. The strongest people I’ve worked with are always fascinating characters of wide ranging technical ability on their instruments. John Anderson, for example, from Yes, had virtually no musical ability on any instrument at all, but was nonetheless one of the best musicians I knew. That is using the term “musician” in a slightly broader sense. Robert Fripp has large technical ability, but he also isn’t hidebound by that. He can see past it. He can see himself using his technique but he has a ” Is this of any use to anybody” approach. The best people are restless. They see what’s going on and they’re just trying to change things. Either they do it intuitively or they can quite often be disruptive too. Disruption is part of change.
SF: Would you call them visionaries?
BB: Oh yes. The best musicians are visionaries. Sometimes their vision is very clear and they can’t get it through the instrument. Sometimes they might not be able to say quite what they’re doing, but their instrument’s saying it all. I think Alan Holdsworth is a visionary guitar player. Not only does he have technical facility, but it’s what he does with it.
SF: Was Jamie Muir like that too?
BB: Yeah. A very strong man. You know when you’re in the company of powerful people. There’s something in their eyes that says they’ve definitely got strength. There are some of these people in the artistic world. A lot of the people who could change rock ‘n’ roll probably aren’t attracted into rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of interesting people I’ve met probably would never dream of slogging around airports and gigs, and generally entering the rock ‘n’ roll industry. Half of me says, “Hey, c’mon! Come on and join us. Come and try to change something here.” Sometimes they’re musicians and sometimes they’re people who’ve given up playing music.
SF: Why do you think they give up?
BB: Maybe the musical instrument wasn’t the right means for their expression. But, there’s no doubt that the rock ‘n’ roll thing requires a particularly kind of robust character who can keep his eyes firmly on the target in sight. All the time there’s going to be the feeling of, “No. Don’t disrupt. Don’t change. Don’t come up with new ideas. Don’t rock the boat. Give the company the same product again and again.” This is how it’s rewarded in the rock ‘n’ roll scene. But, I love the rock ‘n’ roll scene because when I grew up in it in England it was very adventurous. Now it has temporarily—in my opinion—lost its adventurousness. But, via bands like King Crimson and others it will gain back it’s adventurousness. Hopefully there will be lots and lots of individual new drummers coming up that have some new plan. I can see that the problem from a new young drummer’s point of view is how does he do more than King Crimson?
SF: Go back to the roots and build off them.
BB: That’s maybe a very good idea. Somehow find something that’s been missed. A stone that’s been unturned. A possible avenue of exploration that somebody hasn’t covered.
SF: Your present concept of playing on the drums instead of leaning on the cymbals isn’t new. Your style is new, but the concept goes back to Dixieland drumming.
BB: Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s fascinating the way these things come in and out of fashion.
SF: Where do you see yourself in five years?
BB: Probably in the Columbia Inn in Maryland, playing at the Meriweather Post and doing my daily job. I would actually quite like that. I don’t find it a demeaning position. I find it entertaining. I’m well rewarded for what I do. I try to think hard in terms of percussion, and try to bring as much energy and enthusiasm as possible to the rock ‘n’ roll circuit. I try to get some new ideas into the stilted old thing we know as rock ‘n’ roll. I’d like to be in an extremely adventurous band like the one I’m in now. I also see I’m developing as an educationalist in a peculiar way. I do have some students in England. I’m also doing some stuff for Tama drums. I’ve spoken at Berklee and P.I.T. and I’m beginning to feel that I quite like talking about music and drumming and the role of the drummer.
I’ve just recently made a video. It’s a semi-entertainment, semi-clinic video. It’s not all about flams and paradiddles, but it does assume that you know a certain amount about drumming. It’s got archive footage of some of the bands I’ve been in. It’s got comments from Fripp and Steve Howe about drums and what it was like playing with me. I’m doing a lot of soloing on it and demonstrations about drums, and trying to explain some of the stuff I’ve been explaining to you. It’s available from Axis Video.
Is this interview okay? This isn’t all particularly about drumming. Well, it is a drumming kind of article. It’s advice and feelings about drummers, generally, in 1983.
SF: Sometimes I want to delve into areas more conducive to growth than, “Gee, if I only knew what kind of drumheads Bill Bruford uses…”
BB: Yeah, I’ve had so much of that. We have to get across the idea that the drumhead is simply like a piece of paper to the writer. It’s really fairly unimportant. Kids mustn’t get the feeling that if you duplicate the drumkit you duplicate the drummer! It’s not going to help them to get the same drumheads. What’s going to help them is to get past the idea of the machinery and the technique, and get into the concepts of the thing, which are much more fun! That’s where life starts. I’m not so good about describing drumkits and drumheads endlessly, and talking about paradiddles. I love those subjects, but beyond that is much more interesting.