INTERVIEWED BY JOHN F. KELLY for Fantagraphics Books’ COMICS JOURNAL
I used the audio from our interview and pieced together this footage from an upcoming biographical film about my art.
Interview took place this summer in Pittsburgh PA.
Interviewed by THE POUGHKEEPSIE JOURNAL
“STEVEN CERIO” interviewed by Jen for THE POUGHKEEPSIE JOURNAL
1 What meaning do you hope people find in your work?
Meaning is a trap. You can only become enlightened by your own phenomena. I’m not a symbolist. I’m not concerned with communicating a specific thought or personal insight; I try to convey energy. I see my work like everyone else does. It confuses me in the same way it confuses the viewer when I do it correctly. What interests me about life and art isn’t systems or exacting communication, that’s someone else’s job. I’m interested in the freedom it finds for itself, its synchronicities, magical coincidences and strange overlapping of events. The more traveling I do, the more talking I do, the more drawings I do, the more ground I walk over the happier I am. That’s why I’m here to do. That’s what my work means.
2. Your drawings and illustrations have an intrinsically childlike sense of play. How have you developed this?
Increasingly since I began drawing seriously in my teens, the ideas I was dealing with revolved around glee and a preternatural harmony expressed in my art to this day. In 1998 Juxtapoz magazine described my efforts as an artist as techniques to “synthesize joy.” I have in fact always been fascinated at how images depicting joy and happiness are located almost entirely on products aimed at child consumers. I wanted to engage with this activity, while providing it to a larger demographic. I believe that our adult society is pleased with its irony, sardonic wit and grim prophecy which it presents as intellectual property while continuously overlooking “childish” joy and pleasures: the sensations that each child and adult crave in perpetuity. To Quote George Petros from his introduction to my article in Seconds Magazine “it sometimes seems a shame that his innocent abandon is wasted on sour, seen-it-all adult audience.” To the contrary, I’ve taken a strange pleasure in adults finding the dark irony and violence they crave so strongly in my work when it wasn’t drawn there. It reinforces my assessment of this behavior that repulses me so.
I have always chosen animals and personified objects to express the emotion and intelligence in my work whenever possible. A smile on a flower shows a happy flower, a smiling man carries with him the history and behavior of his species, which is a lot of extra baggage I don’t care to lug around in my art.
2. What inspires you?
I play music in continuity while I’m awake. I like long, eventful, dense but meditative pieces. Captain Beefheart, The Residents, Can, John Coltrane, Soft Machine and Henry Cow all excel at that. I get a lot of pleasure from my collection postcards of bridges, freeze frame photographs of splashing water, time lapse films, antique squeaky toys, and cereal boxes as well. When I need to recharge nothing does it better than a couple of weeks hiking and driving in Arizona. I mail myself home boxes of cacti, beautiful stones and any toy totem pole I can get my hands on. In two weeks I can usually shoot at least four to five thousand photos. South Western Arizona is the strangest and most beautiful experience you can get without traveling space or ingesting a weird hippy chemical.
3. The faces and animals in your work seem both diverse and highly stylized. Where do the wide-eyed, snaggle-toothed casts of characters come from?
They are cute little things trying to have fun, be happy and find enlightenment just like the rest of us but smooth and shiny like living gummy brand products. The cast comes to me one by one. I can’t force it, I’ve tried. They insinuate themselves into my sketches. They come from a place in my head where nothing bad ever happens.
4. Explain what “surrational’ is and how you employ the concept in your art.
I don’t believe a person can approach a more direct dialog with the world than through presenting one’s own iconography and visual fetishes. My reoccurring characters and coincidences are meant to conjure an affect in the viewer with an application of what I refer to as “magical coincidence.” Magical Coincidence is surrational decision making. Surrationality is the pure instinct in the act of creating uncalculated or ironic surrealism. It defies common rationality. Traditional surrealism utilized juxtaposition of disparate elements. The surrational decisions in my work are made by intuitive thought: intuitions that may confuse me while pleasing my sense of drama. I first decided to utilize this method. After a dream I had in which various “Magical Coincidences” occurred. In this dream I found myself kneeling in a muddy field with my arms elbow deep in the wet soil pulling one strange artifact out of the ground after another. Each object was a natural occurrence of vegetable and root growth that formed impossibly close likenesses to rabbits, giraffes including a realistic and highly detailed bust of Abraham Lincoln as well. I peered up at one point and was confronted with an immense rabbit made entirely of various different colored jellies. When the sun shined through her body it made beautiful colored projections all over my arms. I don’t claim to understand these cryptic dreams, nor do I try, but I do recognize the elation I felt. When I accomplish this technique correctly I feel the same sensation: a blend of enlightened confusion and gleeful discovery.
5. When did you begin drawing?
My Mom kept a series of dismembered head collecting, ten story tall green skinned witches I did in kindergarten. The first memory I have is drawing one of those pieces in magic marker. I’ve spent a lot of my life drawing since then. I took a break somewhere around nine or ten to prepare myself for a life as a fantastically eccentric botanist. I still fantasize about being a botanist one day! I have enough cacti and succulents to keep me busy with plants though.
6. If you created an illustration of your life so far, what would it look like?
I like to believe that every drawing I do is the complete sum of all of my experiences up to the very moment my newest piece is finished. I like to think that maybe falling off my bike in the second grade is in the drawing somewhere near to a memory of a delicious slice of lemon meringue pie I ate last week. I can’t see it but sometimes I can feel it. I do know one thing for sure though; it’ll have bumble bees all over it!
7. What has been the biggest challenge or obstacle in your artistic career?
To get my creativity gland to work in tandem with my business gland.
8. Describe the ‘zine scene and your involvement in it. I moved to NYC in 1989 and landed an assistant job at Psychedelic Solution Gallery. I grabbed a cheap apartment (they were all cheap back then) and got to work on my portfolio. I drew every night until I couldn’t focus, on lunch breaks and on the subway to and from work. Before any paying clients opened their doors to me I got my chops together contributing to a multitude of ‘zines and independent art and music magazines like EXIT and Chemical Imbalance. It was a very exciting time for me. I was published with many well known figures like Robert Williams, Joe Coleman and Raymond Pettibon which was quite thrilling for a twenty one year old suburban kid. I was hooked.
9. What future projects are you working on?
I’m working on two children’s books, putting the finishing touches on my web site (happyhomeland.com), illustrating the texts of thirty eight authors for my next book, designing a series of ipod shells for MacSkinz, teaching adjunct at Syracuse University, recording drum tracks for a cd with my band “Atlantic Drone Quartet” and preparing a new series of drawings for my next show.
10. What is your personal definition of Art?
Great art looks like, acts like and smells like a prayer to me and bad art looks like, acts like and smells like a curse, that’s how I meter it anyway.
Interview with Frank Frazetta- Seconds #29 (1994)
DEAR MR. FANTASY
Art maven FRANK FRAZETTA
flexes his muscles
By Steven Cerio
FRANK FRAZETTA’s work doesn’t fall into an easily-definable category. It is at home on a paperback book cover or on a gallery wall. Though his subject matter is highly illustrative, reminiscent of Sunday supplements and Comic culture, its elegance and painterly qualities propel it into the realm of Fine Art.
Perhaps you know Mr. Frazetta because of his seminal cover art from Vampirella #1. Or perhaps you go back far enough to remember the days when Frank’s paperback covers for Edgar Rice Burrough’s extensive Tarzan series screamed out from every book rack in America. It was those kinetic covers, through their erotic implications, that put Frank on the map.
To some aficionados, Frazetta is the Michelangelo of modern Fantasy Art. Frank’s romanticized versions of the human form, culled from men’s magazines and old children’s books, were lushly erotic and scantily clad. When his style coalesced a few decades ago, its highly-exploitive element was regarded as a necessary evil of the marketplace. But in these days of bulimic babes, are Frazetta’s big-bosomed broads still welcome?
If you want swords and sluts, Frazetta’s got’em. He’s made his mark drawing multitudes of savagely heroic figures in dynamic poses. Never passive, the figures fight one another with sensuous abandon and are provocatively attacked bye wild animals. In bringing the world of Tarzan and Robert E. Howard’s Conan to life, Frank improved upon the titillating and vulnerable vixens who populated the soft-core Eisenhower era.
At sixteen, Frazetta had Snowman, his first Comic, published by his employer, Talley-ho Comics. Soon thereafter he drew covers for Buck Rogers and was the ghost hand for Al Capp, creator of Lil’ Abner. Early in Playboy’s history he helped piece together Hefner’s Little Annie Fannie. As the paperback book market peaked, Frank did the work which would gain him fame. But it was his work for Creepy and Eerie that brought him into mainstream Pop Culture.
Frank’s album covers for Molly Hatchet and Dust brought him into the Rock & Roll spotlight. His images sailed smoothly into the collective unconscious of America, as evidence by the wide array of Frazetta tattoos, posters, and Seventies van murals world-wide.
Frazetta has the extraordinary ability to guide the viewer’s eye by focusing and unfocusing on chosen elements within a composition. This technique creates a picture plane which mimics the focal capabilities of the human eye. Objects on the periphery are blurred, indistinct, while the central image snaps with clarity. Such masterly touches have imbued Frank’s works with great financial value – for example rumor has it that his paintings have recently sold for a quarter of a million dollars.
Despite massive popularity over the decades, Frank’s current show at New York’s Alexander Gallery is the first public showing of his works ever outside of his own estate in East Stroudsberg, PA.
At this point in his career, Frazetta is the unchallenged master of the Sword & Sorcery genre. Many other artists have come under his influence – for example, Boris Vallejo, Richard Corbin, Barry Windsor Smith, and Bernie Wrightson. But when Frazetta pulls out the stops, the hero triumphs and the blood flows freely!
SECONDS: Where do you see yourself on the art continuum? How do you categorize yourself?
FRAZETTA: I’d like to think of the quality of my work as fine art. On the other hand, I’m in the wrong field. That’s because of people and their judgments. If you illustrate a book, you’re an illustrator. I’d like to think of Fine Art as being what it sounds like – fine. Quality. There are fine artists that do Comics, there are fine artists that do classical art, there are fine artists that do illustration and yet, if they’re in a certain field they think of themselves as fine artists when they could be terrible artists.
SECONDS: It’s that adjective then.
FRAZETTA: I think so. It’s the quality of art that counts. Whether it has all the great elements that make great art: the color, the design, the composition, the emotion it creates, all those things. If it doesn’t do that, I don’t care how skillfully done it is.
SECONDS: Who were some of your influences earlier on?
FRAZETTA: Everyone. All the masters that ever lived, many illustrators, and certainly guys who did Comics. Foster would be my main influence. From the sublime to the ridiculous I go from Foster to Sega, who did design. Even though Foster did Popeye, I thought he was a brilliant artist. His ability to simplify and tell a story, that’s a great artist. Then you go to the masters who rendered and painted beautifully but told no story at all. It was contrived, it was obvious that they just posed models and weren’t very excited about it, in spite of the skillful approach. Sure it’s great but so what? It leaves me if I have to sit there and wonder about the application of paint. It means nothing. I’d rather look at Harvey Kurtzman. On the other hand, certain classical artists like Goya had magic and power. That’s my own personal judgment. Unfortunately, there’s a million people in this world that have been brainwashed and have to be told what’s good and what isn’t.
SECONDS: How do you feel about abstract painters?
FRAZETTA: There’s a lot of abstract quality in my work. Abstracts are painted for the sake of creating patterns. That leaves me cold. I like some abstract art. If the design is wonderful and has some pizazz I can enjoy it.
SECONDS: I don’t see much Mondrian in your work.
FRAZETTA: Not really. I refuse to put on pretenses about what’s intellectual and what isn’t. For many, many years, anything that was representational was considered corny and old hat. They could be right about that but people that just jump from good drawing to abstract could be copping out. It’s nonsense.
SECONDS: The argument is that the abstract artists thought they were the ones acting directly on your psyche.
FRAZETTA: If it’s calculated and deliberate and there’s a certain intelligence behind it and assuming they paid their dues in the first place, that they did go through the fundamentals of drawing and found it boring and were looking for other avenues, fine. But don’t sit there with your finger up your ass and pretend you’re a genius. I don’t buy it. I’m very capable of painting abstract but I’d just be kidding people. What would I prove? That I can design wonderful shapes?
SECONDS: It ends up being sort of intellectual masturbation.
FRAZETTA: You said that, I didn’t. The subject I do is so hokey and yet entertaining but some of my fanatical fans like Dave Winiewicz have looked beyond that. I was doing a lot of things. I tried to appeal to the masses and at the same time inject little subtleties that would appeal to the intellectuals around. They did see past the obvious. If you look at the background, that’s what makes my work go on and on. Many people, even the fans, don’t realize why they keep enjoying it. It’s like abstract music, you don’t quite understand but because it’s so varied you keep enjoying it and you never get tired of it. There’s a lot going on in my art besides the superhero standing there doing his thing. It’s the way I lead into it, the way I move you around, not just a heroic figure looking wonderful. At least that’s the way I like think about it. I like to compare myself to Stravinsky. When he wrote The Rite Of Spring he went out in left field and people said, “What the hell is that?” To this day, I’ve never tired of that piece.
SECONDS: I’ve always sensed a real fluidity in your brush strokes. It always kind of reminded me of Sargent. Despite the fact you’d have a giant warrior on a horse, it seemed to have a calming effect on me.
FRAZETTA: I’m trying to make people feel wonderful. It’s not meant to create menace or anything like that. I try to be as tasteful as I can with everything I do and make it beautiful, in spite of the mayhem. I’d like to think that even my battle scenes are not ugly. It’s a beautiful piece to look at and you soon forget what it means and you start enjoying it for all these other reasons. That takes time, it takes study. Nobody went to art school and learned it all in a day. I developed as I went on and on and began to be more deliberate about what I was doing. The stuff I did earlier was just as good but it was more instinctive. I just had sense of design, composition, and movement. The fact that I could draw well didn’t hurt. I did a painting that almost approaches surrealism and it won an award and I kind of predicted it would. That one was called “Downward To The Earth.” I just went out on a limb with that. I said, “I’m going to prove a point here,” and I knew that a certain element of people would enjoy it. On the other hand, I realize the majority of my fans would say, “What happened to Frank?”
SECONDS: Do you often do un-Frazetta-like paintings?
FRAZETTA: I do but it generally fails commercially, although my peers enjoy the hell out of them. I don’t pretend this is a deep hunger in me. I do love shapes, wonderful moving shapes, moving your head around just like great music does. You don’t know what certain combinations of sounds feel good but they do. I think it all depends on your intelligence level. People on a certain level always seem to agree on a combination of sounds in music or a combination of colors and shapes in art. Then you get a lower element and you’re down to some lower level and they find another area that entertains them. It just depends on what they understand. I was a crazy guy, I tried to make everybody happy. You see that my fans range from ten to one-hundred-and-ten. That’s tough to do.
SECONDS: Do you work from life of photographs?
FRAZETTA: I work from my head.
FRAZETTA: There’s a lot of people that are very skeptical about that but go to the show and ask any artist who’s watched me work and they’re amazed. It comes out of nowhere. Not that I never have referred to a pose myself, there have been many times, but generally speaking, every Death Dealer painting I’ve ever done has come out of nowhere. I could pick out on the fingers of my hand the number of times where I might have posed or my wife might have posed. That was generally when I had a problem with lighting, never the drawing, never action.
SECONDS: The reason I asked that was because of how you keep your backgrounds abstract and washed away. I assumed that was because you were using photographic reference.
FRAZETTA: Not at all. I am a dyed-in-the-wool shutterbug but it never does a thing for my art. I never use it. Unfortunately, I have watched artists refer to models and photography and become enslaved by it. Next thing you know they can’t draw, can’t think. It’s an absolute fact. They get so damn lazy. They find using the model and photographs made the painting look very realistic and they become entranced by that fact. That’s precisely what I don’t want. I want it to look dreamlike, I want it to look made-up, I want it to look unreal. If I start getting lazy simply because I’m frightened of making mistakes, I’m done. Sure, sometimes I have to struggle because I’m trying to solve problems with my noodle but I have this great drawing ability which helps a lot. And this imagination I can’t explain.
SECONDS: With the subjects in your paintings, you seem to have a set body type. Are those based on your own idealized body types or is that because it’s fantasy work?
FRAZETTA: We all have personal likes and dislikes and I love a certain body type in women and men and in creatures and lizards and dinosaurs. I’d like to think that I break it down to the perfect machine, whatever it may be. There’s a certain physical type, a certain look, in a heroic figure of a guy that just is the ultimate. I have a very personalized woman, as you know. You’ve seen my women, they kind of look alike. I’ve tried to escape from that and I was never happy. I’d make a perfectly nice rendering of a female and it would just make me unhappy. “I don’t love her.” She’s got to have a certain look, those eyes that I love.
SECONDS: I’m sure you know what a great impact you’ve had on Fantasy Art.
FRAZETTA: I’m aware of everything that goes on out there. Everything. I’ve seen my imitators and the rest and it’s wonderful, I’m glad. They’ve talked to me about it and I tried to tell them, “You have to do your own thing for your own joy.” Their answer is, “That’s easy for you to say, Frank.” I guess what they’re saying is that they don’t see what I see. I just see, I visualize very clearly. The minute somebody says, “Here’s a job we want you to do” –bang! There’s the image, right between the eyes. I see it and begin to move it around in my head. I not only see it vividly, I begin to select the perfect perspective in my mind’s eye. That’s something I have that I couldn’t possibly teach or explain away. I’ve always had that ability.
SECONDS: Is it challenging for you to illustrate other people’s ideas?
FRAZETTA: Not really. A lot of my most successful works are my own ideas in the first place. Death Dealer and many things I’ve done over the years, I just did what popped into my head and they wrote stories around it. Conan was a commissioned work. They told me about his character and I began to visualize this character as I speed-read through the first few chapters. I went right ahead and developed this character that didn’t even barely resemble Howard’s description at all. Quite a different guy. It was what I thought a barbarian should look like, the ultimate barbarian. His description was quite different. He was leaner with tousled hair and hawkish features. I instead saw a bruised, battered, scarred, monster of a guy. That’s just the way I felt a guy should look like at this point. Once again, it’s all personal. My interpretation of the feeling I get from it. I’m prone to develop characters every day. I just sit there and create images that are powerful, sensual, whatever I’m in the mood to do.
SECONDS: What’s the strongest reaction you’ve ever seen anyone have to your work?
FRAZETTA: Catgirl is certainly high on this list. Death Dealer, some of those. I’ve never seen a whole publishing place go crazy as the day I brought in the first Conan painting. That was an interesting story. They commissioned me to do it and as usual I waited to the last minute. They called the day before it was due in and said, “Frank, how’s it coming?” At this point they had confidence in what I was doing. “By the way, what’s the concept?” I said, and I was being very facetious, “It’s a portrait.” There was silence at the other end. They had their own ideas, the obvious approach, a battle scene. They said, “A portrait?” In any event, I sat down and bashed it out in a day, brought it in, the place was in an uproar. They went crazy, they were drinking champagne. I even predicted it would turn the world of illustration upside down. Kind of arrogant, isn’t it? I knew it was a new look, nobody had ever seen something quite like it before. Maybe I just sensed the world was ready for something like that. Typical of me, after the Fourth or Fifth painting I was bored. I just don’t like chewing my cabbage over and over.
SECONDS: Do you think you would have stayed doing Comics?
FRAZETTA: No way. I always loved to paint and work with color. When I was younger there was no market. You either painted for galleries or you told stories in Comics. Then suddenly there was Science Fiction and I saw a market for what I liked to do. Create strange, wonderful images and tell a story, and there I went. But Comics are fine too because you can draw a panel after panel and tell stories. I love telling stories and now I do it in one page. I like to think that my paintings have a beginning, middle, and end when you look at them. That’s what separates it from illustration. Illustration is a design to lure you into buying a book, it leaves you hanging. “Gee, that looks interesting. I wonder what that means?” I want them to look at my cover and say, “I don’t care what the hell’s in the book. I’m not even going to read it. I just want to cut out the drawing.”
SECONDS: I actually did that to your books when I was a kid. I never read the books you did covers for.
FRAZETTA: You see. It’s complete. You look at it and know what’s happening and you love it for the sheer artistry of it. Who the hell cares what the book is about?
SECONDS: Do you read much?
FRAZETTA: No. I did when I was younger. Now, every time I decide, “Maybe I should read once in a while,” I realize I’m wasting my time. Why sit there hour after hour when I could do a painting in that time? Which would you do? But I used to when I was younger and I didn’t do this stuff. I read books from the library and stuff like that. Nothing very profound, just a lot of animal stories.
SECONDS: What do you think of the state of Comics now?
FRAZETTA: I don’t like what I see at all. I look at it and I don’t understand it. I don’t know exactly where they go. It’s a huge ego trip. “Look at how I can design these crazy panels, look at this great coloring, look at these great effects.” Everything is special effects. I hate special effects! I’m a purist. Do your panel a step at a time and get involved, like a great movie. What is with these special effects? The young kids, they love it. But what do they know?
SECONDS: I was just looking at your Vampirella stuff the other day and it’s just like, “Here you go, here it is.”
FRAZETTA: Yeah, I want you to identify with it. I want you to know what you’re looking at and understand it. If I can look at art in Comics and not understand it, something’s wrong.
SECONDS: I see a psychedelic influence from the Sixties coming back.
FRAZETTA: Sure, fireworks on stage, what the hell does it have to do with music? I go back to Frank Sinatra and Forties, when music was beautiful and romantic –I’m and old guy. It was romantic and grabbed you by the heartstrings. Suddenly they’re screeching and hollering and they’re half-naked on stage. Every one of them has a guitar –what the hell is this? It’s not a question of how skillful you are anymore, it’s a question of how crazy you are. I don’t buy that. That’s bullshit. Same with art. Even at this late date I’m very capable of keeping up with these kids that do this nutty stuff. I just wouldn’t let myself do it. I want it to be beautiful and I have my own ideas of what I think is beautiful and there’s an awful lot of people that feel the way I do. I don’t try to appeal to the masses and the assholes just because there’s more of them, I could care less.
SECONDS: What do you think of the state of fantasy covers right now?
FRAZETTA: It’s pretty boring I think. If you ask any of the artists, they blame someone else. “This is what the editor told us to do, this is the effect they want, skulls all over the place.” What happened to pure art?
SECONDS: With your covers, I’ve never seen anyone use type to compete with your images.
FRAZETTA: I’ll kill them. I wish I could agree with you but they’ve screwed up so many. You got some of these art directors that just didn’t like me and decided to do me one better. They’d crop a cover I designed beautifully – bigger is better with these guys. Zoom in close – wait a minute, I had a whole lot going on out there. “What’d you do that for, you nut?” They just loused up the composition just to get a close shot. That irritated the hell out of me. I didn’t waste all my time in that space for nothing.
SECONDS: Are you happy with this new book of pencil drawings that Glenn Danzig’s company put out?
FRAZETTA: Do you like it?
SECONDS: Oh, it’s beautiful.
FRAZETTA: In spite of the great printing, the originals still blow it away. Something got lost in the reduction. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the quality, it’s gorgeous, but in the reduction it made it look tighter. In the originals they’re looser and more fun to look at.
SECONDS: It stood out as some of the better printings of pencils.
FRAZETTA: Oh it is! It’s great. I’m only saying the originals are more fun to look at.
SECONDS: Do you see yourself in the Met in the future?
FRAZETTA: I don’t plan on that but if some people want to take the ball and run with it, that’s fine with me. I thought I’d be long dead before anybody really saw what I did. It’s pretty hard to crack that are brainwashed. I like to think of them as brainwashed. I’ll be the first to tell them too. I think I’m a pretty good judge of what great art is, I’ve studied it all my life, I went to art school – a Fine Art school, I might add – and learned all the do’s and don’ts. It’s not like I’m some dunce that grew up doing Comics. I had Fine Art training and found most people had no talent. They just sat there and painted a still life or posed someone and that was it. I saw no creativity, I saw no pure talent. Okay, maybe they got pretty good with a brush, maybe the color was interesting, but what does it boil down to? Style and technique, period. I have to be creative. I have to create images that knock your socks off. I want images that have never been seen before and then paint them with the style and technique. That’s what I try to do. I try to have people say, “That’s incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it. I am really moved.”
Interview with Bill Bruford- Seconds #28 (1994)
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.