Over the previous decade he’d injected jazz and classical concepts into pop and rock music with Yes and King Crimson, in the process breaking down barriers to what drummers could achieve in progressive music scenarios. By ’78 he was framing bold new musical vistas with his own self-titled project—but still having a go at “supergroup” potentialities with U.K. MD caught up with the famously deep thinker to find out…well…exactly what he was thinking.



Photo by Dick Wallis

MD: You’ve said that when you began to put together your own band, you had a strong sense of what you wanted to hear. Would you please be specific about what that was?

Bill: I think I was tired, perhaps, of vocal supremacists! What would blazing instrumentalists with jazz-level skills do if, broadly, they were given the run of the rock coop? Absurd, I know, but I wanted to import the skills of the jazz musician into rock and hear it all pretty loud, like Black Sabbath.

I’d sort of inherited a British progressive rock audience that seemed wholly unfamiliar with the jazz I’d loved and grown up with, and I thought, in my arrogance, I’d heave some of that on to them. I think I met Tony Williams going the opposite way. Much of the ’70s into the ’80s was very exciting, with a lot of jazz bumping into rock and the other way round, and no one quite sure about any of it. The three-chords-and-a-backbeat rock guys hated jazz harmony; moving the other way, the jazz guys were ridiculed by their peers for “selling out” and “plugging in”—remember that?!

Remember, too, the context: In ’60s and ’70s Britain, rock drummers were hopeless at jazz, and jazz drummers even worse at playing rock. The only guys straddling the two were the best of the older session cats—Bobby Graham, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, etc. More importantly, you weren’t even supposed to like the opposite genre, let alone want to play it. So the gulf between the two was well defined, huge, and considered unbridgeable. Seemed like a fertile place to break some taboos.

MD: What was your writing process in Bruford—what instruments were ideas conceived on?

Bill: Tunes credited to one person were usually conceived on that person’s main instrument—Jeff Berlin’s “Joe Frazier” on bass, Dave Stewart’s “Land’s End” on keyboards, including the newfangled polyphonic synths, my “Beelzebub” from drums. But perhaps that was an exception; most of my stuff came from piano, which I played just enough to get by.

MD: How finished were the compositions when you brought them to the other players?

Bill: Ranging from very sketchy, like “QED,” to semi-definite—almost everything—to all but complete, such as with “Palewell Park” and “Travels With Myself.”

MD: And how did Dave Stewart elaborate on your writing?

Bill: Very skilfully. Dave was the first of several great musicians I wrote with who didn’t openly wince when they heard my ideas, but was good enough to take them and correct schoolboy errors, extend, extrapolate, put meat on skinny flesh. The growing composition probably had a strong or interesting rhythmic or metrical spine and a decent opening theme, but I tended to need help developing things. Memo to younger players: Nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. I’ve always benefited from a close alliance with one other music inventor to bounce ideas off—Dave Stewart, then Django Bates, then Tim Garland.

MD: Was it ever the case with your early compositions that the time signature or rhythm came first and the melody followed?

Bill: Sure, “Beelzebub” was a groove first. The first group to play that was Rick Wakeman, John Wetton, and myself. I had the opening descending line but didn’t know what to do next. We were working it up. Rick said, “Play the same thing backwards and upside down,” a retrograde inversion. That worked, and then the A section repeats, to make a staccato ABA framework preceding the legato bridge. But I was short on compositional chops, certainly.

MD: Are there any of your songs from that era that led you to feel like you’d made some compositional leap? In retrospect, can you hear certain qualities in the music of this era that you would successfully mine or expand upon on later recordings?

Bill: After a bunch of writing in the late ’70s, I didn’t really come back to it until the mid-’80s with the more acoustic, guitar-less, jazz-inflected Earthworks. The compositional terrain had changed, although you can still hear bits of the group Bruford in Dave Stewart’s production of “Pressure,” for example, from Earthworks’ first album.

The style of music invention for Bruford died with that band. Come Earthworks, all sorts of new tools appeared: electronic drums that could play notes and, later, chords and samples; MIDI and MIDI recording devices; saxophones; digital audio workstations; etc. We played with the toys that were around, very pragmatic, with style and genre of little concern. Did it sound fresh? Nobody else around was using electronic bass drum and acoustic bass at the time, for example, so that opened up possibilities. But I’m jumping ahead.

The Bruford band rehearsing, from left: Bill, bassist Neil Murray, guitarist Allan Holdsworth, keyboardist Dave Stewart

MD: Rototoms were a prominent sound in both Bruford and U.K., and of course in the music that you would make in the ensuing years. Please talk about that—your approach to tuning when you first started using them, what problems they presented, and whether they suggested different ways of playing to you.

Bill: I can’t remember quite how I stumbled across them, but I was always looking out for something the other guy didn’t have. I immediately liked the bright clanging sound and the pitch-change possibilities.

Lloyd McCausland was out in L.A. with Remo Belli, and they were super-encouraging and helpful with the new instruments—though they knocked up the world’s worst British-cliché promotional campaign, which I should sue them for. Unfortunately, the thinner the heads, the better and brighter the sound, so I went through a ton of heads rather fast until I found a compromise weight.

Hearing Terry Bozzio play his beautiful pitched drumset the other day, I think I had an idea of pitched drums, or at least more definitely pitched drumming, always in my DNA. I always thought drums could play tunes, but that was the [Max] Roach architectural thing. So later on a combination of Rototoms, boobams, and Simmons electronics gave me a workable hybrid, but timbrally very disparate and hard to handle, with which I could emphasize the melodic side.

MD: You’ve described Bruford as primarily rock musicians “buying into a jazz sensibility,” and you brought Allan Holdsworth into U.K. partly as a counterweight to the pop orientation of John Wetton and Eddie Jobson. It seems like one of the challenges to both groups was allowing the music to develop without too much concern for what bag it would fall into. Perhaps that level of concern depended on which musician you happened to be talking to. For you, though, were there certain approaches you consciously took, in terms of your drumming, songwriting, or even how you allowed Bruford to be promoted, to establish it one way or another stylistically?

Bill: Good question, difficult to answer. We had little or no concerns about whether our music would sell, believe it or not. Perhaps we should have been more concerned! But I had an open tab at the management firm, and they had a steady stream of back royalties from former groups that they could always bail me out with, so I wasn’t given a budget, and didn’t watch genres, “bags,” or clocks. I was brought up with the idea that the music should always sound fresh, and, if not exactly new, then at least with clear blue water between your outfit and others. I didn’t really hear too many others playing “Beelzebub” or even U.K.’s “In the Dead of Night,” so I figured we were doing okay. Why I drum, write, or allow myself to be promoted in certain ways is a function of past experience and pragmatics—what’ll get the job done? What works?

Active, Then and Now
Bill Bruford appeared on two seminal albums in 1978: his debut as a leader, Feels Good to Me, and the first, self-titled album by supergroup U.K. This past year, the drummer saw the release of Seems Like a Lifetime Ago, an eight-CD box set of the Bruford band’s complete work, as well as the publication of his book Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer.

MD: In the conclusion of your recent book, Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer, just out on University of Michigan Press, you emphasize that creativity is not a thing but a relationship among artists searching for some kind of meaning and understanding. Have those discoveries ever been concrete for you—in other words, were they ever in the form of lessons learned that made your future art-making easier, or more efficient, or more honest?

Bill: No, I had to step back out of practice to figure out the questions worth asking and get those kinds of insights. But working with a small group of initially disparate people, to help mold it into some sort of cohesive unit with a singular vision that speaks with one voice, was an ongoing fascination within the kind of music ensembles we had in that time period. Sitting in rehearsal rooms negotiating the next chord sequence or rhythmic maneuver in an act of collective collaboration is seen as too cumbersome and expensive now.

So you get a different kind of music—airbrushed and perfect. An early “relationship lesson” that I’ve cited before, but that’s valuable to any precocious, overconfident beginner such as I was, is the idea that the music doesn’t exist to serve you; you exist to serve the music. That was a light-bulb moment for me when I was starting out.

MD: At the time, and in retrospect, did/do the late ’70s seem like a transitional time to you? While drum machines had appeared on records previously, they and other electronic devices became so prominent in popular music within the next couple of years. Was anyone in your circle expressing concern or disdain in 1978 at the direction that electronics might be moving music into? And what was your attitude toward them at the time?

Bill: Needless to say, the Bruford albums and U.K. were recorded without a click. When Roger Linn showed up with his drum machine in the early ’80s, I learned to play closer to clock time real fast. Until then I’d been on “orchestral” time: drummer as conductor. If the time felt better being a little quicker here or there, then so be it. So to my elderly ears, modern computer-based rhythms have a flavor of constraint, of not being able to breathe, a sort of metric suffocation.

Developments within the drum world have only accelerated exponentially in my lifetime, so my, or anyone else’s, whole career has always been and probably will always be in a state of perpetual change. The greatest change in the drum domain, for me, was less the arrival of clicks and electronics, more the arrival of the computer and digitization. Then things really started to fly. Added to which, music is now effectively free to the listener, with all the knock-on ramifications of that. I’ve written a fair bit in Uncharted about the tension between the performer and the oscilloscopic prurience of early automation and the sometimes domineering assumptions of the record producer, but almost anything someone of my age group has to say about the current scene is viewed with a degree of scepticism not always shared by contemporary players.

MD: What do you miss the most about the era of U.K./Bruford, and what do you miss the least?

Bill: It was an extremely productive era for me, with three albums and two children appearing over about two years, and just one phone line in the kitchen. It was hard work, probably, but I don’t think I recognized it as such. It was all write/rehearse/record/mix in the sixteen months between finishing with National Health in late 1976 and kicking off with U.K. in April 1978—I didn’t play any live gigs at all in that period. We had the certainty of youth and way too high an opinion of ourselves. There was enough money around to have a business manager, tour manager, drum guy, and someone to do all that, unlike, say, Earthworks, a decade later, when I was pretty much on my own.

What do I miss the least? The late, great Allan Holdsworth’s nightly assessment that it was all, basically, crap, and that he was the most crap of all.

What do I miss the most? The late, great Allan Holdsworth’s magnificent playing.


Drums in Transition

1976–1977

Drums: Hayman and Ludwig (natural wood finish)
• 6.5×14 Ludwig Supersensitive chrome-plated snare
• 9×13 Ludwig tom
• 8×12 Hayman tom
• 1616 Ludwig floor tom
• 14×22 Ludwig bass drum
Cymbals: Paiste
• 15″ 2002 Sound Edge hi-hats
• 16″ Formula 602 Thin crash (2)
• 11″ 2002 splash atop one of the crashes
• 20″ Formula 602 Medium ride with sizzles
• Percussion rack
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador batters, Clear Diplomat and CS resonants
Sticks: Ludwig 5A

1977–1978

Drums: Hayman and Ludwig (natural wood finish), Remo Rototoms
• 6.5×14 Ludwig Supersensitive chrome-plated snare
• 14″ and 18″ Rototoms
• 8×12 Hayman tom
• 16×16 Ludwig floor tom
• 14×22 Ludwig bass drum
Cymbals: Paiste
• 15″ 2002 Sound Edge hi-hats
• 16″ Formula 602 Thin crash (2)
• 11″ 2002 splash atop one of the crashes
• 20″ Formula 602 Medium ride with sizzles
• 24″ tuned gong
• 20″ 2002 China
• 8″ Formula 602 bell
Percussion rack: woodblocks, three Swiss bells, three untuned metal plates, 6″ and 8″ Rototoms, triangles, finger cymbals
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador batters, Clear Ambassador resonants, Pinstripe on Rototoms
Sticks: Ludwig 5A

1978–1980

Drums: Hayman and Ludwig (natural wood finish), Remo Rototoms
• 6.5×14 Ludwig Supersensitive chrome-plated snare
• 14″ and 18″ Rototoms
• 14×14 Hayman floor tom
• 22×14 Ludwig bass drum
Cymbals: Paiste
• 15″ 2002 Sound Edge hi-hats
• 16″ Formula 602 Thin crash
• 17″ Formula 602 Heavy crash
• 20″ Formula 602 Medium ride
• 14″, 16″, and 24″ tuned gongs
• 20″ 2002 China
• 18″ 2002 crash
• 8″ Formula 602 bell
• 11″ 2002 splash
• 4″, 6″, and 8″ Accent cymbals
• 2″ finger cymbals
Percussion: woodblocks, untuned metal plates, triangles
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador batters, Fiberskyn on Rototoms
Sticks: Ludwig 5A and 5B