Everything you wanted to know about
BILL BRUFORD but were to afraid to ask.
By Steven Cerio
Drummer, percussionist and composer BILL BRUFORD – The answer to the trivia question “Who is the only person to have been in Yes, Genesis, King Crimson?” Master stroker, father of Prog Rock drumming, Bruford left the tinkering over-anxious beat keepers in the dust. For decades his Popeye-like forearms have flailed away, providing the lions share of sound while his more glamorous band-mates have always snapped up the spotlight. Bruford has gone beyond mere percussive beat keeping—he’s a musician capable of propelling the eccentric time signatures of Prog Rock explorations with inescapably powerful snare beats and a smoothness of the greats like Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones and Gene Krupa.
Starting off at the throne of Yes, Bruford made a name for himself as an aggressive Art Rock proto-Fusion drummer who paved the way for other Prog drummers like Terry Bozzio, Neil Pert, and Billy Cobham. He left Yes to drown in their topographic ocean as he switched his allegiances to Fripp’s revitalized King Crimson. Churning out record after record packed to the lid with severe rhythmic contrasts and harmonic dissonance, Crimson tore up the flowing effervescence of the docile Prog bands of the time. Their music created the illusion of chaos through its frequent atonality and compositional complexity.
After the demise of King Crimson, Bruford had more beats up his sleeve. He helped out National Health, Genesis, and others. Then he formed a band under his own name, a unit that stole the aggression of Punk to blend with the finesse of Jazz. With the six-string sorcery of Allan Holdsworth and the bass wizardry of Jeff Berlin, Bruford would remain untamed until their quick demise after their fourth LP.
Following stints with UK and Patrick Moraz, he found himself faced with the rebirth of King Crimson. He was surrounded by Tony Levin and Adrian Belew as well as the ever-present Victorian aura of Fripp. The recorded results were the triplet of Discipline, Beat, and Three Of A Perfect Pair. This project was the closest Bruford has come to Pop music, mainly because the song lengths stayed under eight minutes.
Then there was the birth of his present group Earthworks, where Bruford and crew investigate the jazz of the dirty Americans. With this project, Bruford revitalized drumming and percussion, pulling drummers out of the shadows of the Marshall stacks once again. Armed now with a saxophone player, Earthworks explores the sultry side of music in these days of Grunge and jangly bullshit, all while plans for another King Crimson are being prepared.
SECONDS: Do you consider yourself a Rock drummer?
BRUFORD: Well I don’t. The whole Rock vs. Jazz thing is a totally meaningless conversation that is really only best had between marketing departments at record labels and record store owners. Anybody who knows anything about music knows that it is an entirely gratuitous and passé conversation. The best of Rock has the spirit of Jazz in it and the best of Jazz often has the best attributes of Rock in it. You try to play good music. You try to keep the best elements of both things. If you call me jazz, you condemn me to no record sales. On the other hand, I cannot call myself Rock because I don’t have a singer. So it’s a Jazz group. When I play in Earthworks I’m a Jazz drummer. Let’s keep it simple. I’m Bill and I play with Django and Ian. Then I play over here with Robert Fripp and Tony Levin and that’s a different thing. It’s not Rock or Jazz, its different people who walk through the door.
SECONDS: King Crimson was just a thing unto itself.
BRUFORD: It was. It has had elements of Jazz in it and elements of European improvising and even little bits of Classical music occasionally pop up once in a while. It’s all elements of everything. At the end of the day, you’re trying to fashion a group sound that sounds different from anybody else.
SECONDS: How much improvisation do you do?
BRUFORD: In theory, you would not be able to tell when the written music finishes and the improvising music starts. I’m sure of course you can. We have kicking off points like all Jazz groups do. We start somewhere and then stuff happens. On this live Earthworks CD, the second half of “Emotional Shirt,” the whole of “Bridge Of Inhibition,” and large portions of “All Heaven Broke Loose” are improvised. “Pilgrims Way” in entirely written.
SECONDS: On the new record, you’re using chordal drums.
BRUFORD: That’s a way of trying to describe the fact that the instrument I’m using is a hybrid. It plays drums and keyboards at the same time. That satisfies my fantasies of being a keyboard player. I can assign to any pad at any time any note or combination of notes and samples and add an analog sound anytime.
SECONDS: With King Crimson, you were saying how you formed the drum set after you arranged the band.
BRUFORD: That’s absolutely true. In King Crimson, the music was arrived at in another way, and it turned out what we then needed was this instrument and that instrument. With Earthworks, I had an instrument that you could almost do solo concerts on, though I’d never want to go down that route. This instrument if you configured a rhythmic and percussive scenario — it was very interesting. You could just take it to other musicians and say I’m going to do this and you guys can throw on top of mine and harmonize a bit. It won’t sound like regular Jazz it will sound different.
SECONDS: It seems this newer music has more of a calming effect, as opposed to the Bruford albums which seemed very aggressive.
BRUFORD: You get a bit more measured as you get older, a bit more thoughtful, maybe. The guys I’m playing with are much better musicians. Nobody wants to hear constant tension all the time. I like playing slow. Sometimes playing slow is harder than playing fast.
SECONDS: What kinds of people are coming to your shows now?
BRUFORD: A mixture, Earthworks has played in the States three or four times now and its sort of getting its own audience. There’s King Crimson fans who are being brought into Jazz. There’s a number of young Rock guys. Because I’m supposed to be a Rock drummer but yet have a fascination with Jazz, that encourages young Americans to come over to Jazz, too. I’m in a position of being able to lead people and show them things. There’s a lot of young Rockheads who say, “I don’t like Jazz but I like Earthworks.” You hear that all the time. You realize they never heard any Jazz ever and it’s all based on prejudice. After two hours of Earthworks, they like Jazz.
SECONDS: How did you like working with a percussionist early on in King Crimson?
BRUFORD: That would be Jamie Muir way back when. He was a very interesting man. He taught me lots about music and life in general. I have worked with two drummers quite a bit-like with Phil Collins in Genesis and Alan White in Yes. We have a new King Crimson starting up too, which is going to have two drummers.
SECONDS: What’s the line-up for this King Crimson?
BRUFORD: The 80s King Crimson plus a Stick player and another drummer. It’s a very big sounding group. It’s huge. I don’t think it’s loud, but it’ s very dense and dark.
SECONDS: With Fripp, he’s always come across as the dictator of the band. How does he express his ideas?
BRUFORD: It’ s a lot less than you think. In common with Miles Davis, Robert picks interesting guys. That’ s the entire art of bandleading — picking the right people. If you pick merely interesting people, they’ll make one good album and break up. If you pick the interesting and right people, they’ll make several albums. All Robert does is pick four guys and shut the door and let them figure out their own problems. You’re in the room together and you just have to find a way to make it work. You just forget any ideas you may have had about how it should be or how it was in the past or how it could be. You come with a pair of sticks and an empty brain. He doesn’t in any way give orders, although a certain amount of the current music is written from his guitar. Again, it’ s not the type of band you write a tune for. You find the music in the rehearsal room.
SECONDS: I heard Fripp said something about John Wetton overplaying a lot on the older stuff, and when you did the CD reissues Fripp was thinking about turning down the bass. Is that true?
BRUFORD: I think that’ s very true. John did overplay. John got noisier and noisier as life went on and things became more hysterical until it reached a peak in Asia. By the time he got to UK with me in 1977, he was playing real loud, very loud. That almost killed UK because Holdsworth couldn’t bear him. John did start to play too loud, which is a shame, because he was an extremely hip bass player for a while.
SECONDS: Was that UK project planned as a Rock supergroup?
BRUFORD: That supergroup thing was all kind of nonsense. It was planned that if a couple of Jazz guys and a couple of Pop guys could somehow meet then it would be an interesting album. It was interesting people in a room, but the wrong people. So they made the one good album and they fell apart. It was a good album, I even like it.
SECONDS: Are there any records that you have a problem with?
BRUFORD: The only one I actively hate is the Yes Union record. I thought that was a terrible record. Absolutely awful, an embarrassing record. It cost way too much money. There was no direction at all. It was just a record company thing where they were screwing the band rotten.
SECONDS: Any egos colliding?
BRUFORD: All egos colliding. It was the most awful album to make. It sounds terrible, too. It was put through every conceivable device and computer to try to do something with it. It’ s a complete testimony to the idea that the more money you spend on something, the better it will get. That’s absolutely wrong. The more money you spend, the worse it will get. They threw money and technology at it and it got worse and worse. That’ s the record I have trouble with, but I don’t go around listening to the old records. It’ s like a photo album. You don’t really want to see a photo of you when you were seventeen, right? you looked stupid. Sure, so I looked stupid. That’s what it is to listen to my records.
SECONDS: Any large egos you had to deal with other than Wetton?
BRUFORD: Singers are always a special case unto themselves. All musicians in a band will acknowledge that the singer will be your problem. Singers have to have problems. They have to have throat problems and anxiety attacks. They’re the people who need the audience to clap. Drummers have the least problems. Drummers never have any problems on the whole because the problems they have they keep quiet about. Why? Because there’s a million drummers. Who needs you in the band if you have a problem? The singer – he’ s the guy who’ s the golden thing to the record companies. We all bow and scrape for singers, but we can dump the bass player and drummer any day. The rhythm section is always the first to go. That applies to all groups.
SECONDS: Is it fun for you to be up front?
BRUFORD: It’s absolutely great. It’s fun to get out and about. I love seeing the whites of an audience’s eyes instead of being stuck in back and seeing John Wetton’ s ass. Life for me is a series of asses that I’m behind. Adrian’s got a very nice ass, slim. John Weston’s is fat. Jon Anderson’s is very small. Nice legs, lousy ass. It’ s a series of asses.
SECONDS: I’m sure you’ve been offered a lot of interesting gigs. Are there any interesting ones you decided to turn down?
BRUFORD: I don’t think so. I always accepted whatever came my way. People haven’t offered me strange gigs. Generally, my phone doesn’t ring at all. It’s assumed I’m some kind of specialist. The minute you say you’re a composer or a bandleader your phone stops ringing; you’re on your own at that point. That happened to me very much. People think you’re too expensive or too busy or you want to play in 15/8 or something, none of which may be true. Maybe I’m extremely cheap and dying to play in 4/4 but nobody takes the time to find out. Most of the stuff we’ve done has been self-created. If you want to hear the drums played a certain way like I do, you’re forced to form your own band.
SECONDS: The Bruford Tapes is your most aggressive, violent record
BRUFORD: It is. It’s very tense. A very live album, not mixed, just straight to two track. When l hear that stuff, it’ s tired. The musicians are tired. Their eyeballs are out on stalks. It’ s two months worth of a heat wave down by Oklahoma, and often doing two shows a night. Four hundred miles a day, two shows a night, very hot temperatures and the music is tired. You could tell when musicians are tired and how that manifests itself is incredible aggression. You’re willing to kill the promoter, you’re willing to kill the booking agent, all you want to do is go home. That’ s my memory of those times. I’ve come in and started in New York and ended up in LA exhausted playing at the Roxy or something. Again, five nights, two shows a night, an hour-and-a-half each time, sound check as well, and at the end of it you’ re just so tired. That doesn’t mean the music gets slow – the music gets wild. It was a road band. I like The Bruford Tapes for that reason. The Earthworks live CD I also like for exactly the same reason. Again, no mixing, straight to two-track tape. I like it much more because the band hadn’t done nearly so much road work and was not nearly so exhausted and is a little bit more mature and is still capable of observing silence on the stage and playing with space a little bit.
SECONDS: What are some of your influences?
BRUFORD: Early on, I grew up with Jazz. Grew up through the 60s in England with all the great American Jazz drummers. We used to import albums from the Riverside label in California. I grew up therefore with Charlie Persip and Max Roach and all the big drummers – Art Blakely, Philly Joe Jones and so forth. That’ s where I learned my drums. Then The Beatles came and The Rolling Stones and we listened to those albums but we didn’t like those albums as much as we liked Monk. We had a huge stack of Jazz and a little bit of Rock. I’m the only guy I know who never bought a Beatles record. Now I see it, but then I couldn’t see it. I could only understand Jazz. We started a group in 1968 and l started playing Jazz in Yes really. I didn’t know it wasn’t going to be a Jazz group. For what I’m listening to now, everybody and everything. Being a professional drummer, the ear goes up the minute I hear rhythm anywhere. I can’t say I’m in a club. I’m not in a post-Nirvana club. I’m not in an alternative music club. I’m not in a trance music club. I’m a free agent. I’m trying to be Bill. I’m trying to come up with music that is fresh and particular to me.
SECONDS: What do you think of the trends right now, like Grunge?
BRUFORD: Nothing’s new. It’s all old to me. I’m thrilled the Grunge thing happened because machines were put back in their proper place. Technology really got out of hand in the mid 80s.
You couldn’t even cut a track if there was a human being in the studio. It was all scientists. In London, you could watch the actual physical size of a recording studio be reduced as they wanted less and less human beings in there. The size of the production suite on the other side of the glass was getting bigger and bigger because they wanted more scientists. Now, everything I do is just set up some microphones and let’s play. Thee new King Crimson material I’m doing, six guys in a room, and you play. Just like it used to be, I just played here in New York with the Buddy Rich Big Band. That was amazing. This is a thing that was put together by Neil Peart from Rush. His idea was to get the Buddy Rich Big Band and have all these star drummers play two tunes. We got a guy from Guns N’ Roses. It sounds smoking. This is live. Put the drums up, the horns over there and away you go, you record. The Grunge guys have brought that element back and that’s great.
SECONDS: For a while, everyone was scared of drum machines. Were you feeling threatened around that time?
BRUFORD: I turned left and made my own bands. You can do whatever you want in your own band. There’s no doubt it was a depressing time. I think it’ s much more exciting with real guys.
SECONDS: I read somewhere where you said about King Crimson. “It’s the only gig in the world where I can play in 17/16 and still stay in a decent hotel.”
BRUFORD: You can be treated as a human being, but you’re still allowed to do that stuff. That’s the great advantage of King Crimson. You put those two words together and musicians know they can come in and do some interesting stuff. If you can’t do it in King Crimson, you can’t do it anywhere. It is the place in Rock for a drummer to do something and I’m thrilled to be back. It’s my spiritual home.