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Bill Bruford

A few years after his departure from the group YES, I had the pleasure of seeing drummer Bill Bruford perform with the budding and always cutting-edge progressive-rock band King Crimson back in the mid-‘70s at New York City’s Schaeffer Music Festival in Central Park. As a young drummer, I was fascinated by his distinct percussion vernacular and approach to the kit. For example, when you expected a snare hit, Bruford would roll off the hi-hat and create an offbeat that not only maintained a pulse, but would present a totally unanticipated rhythmic flow to a respective tune. Moving forward into the new millennium, Bruford has been wearing dual hats with his thriving Summerfold and Winterfold record labels. And the musical rewards have been quite beneficial since he’s reissued choice gems from the past, while contrasting the historical perspective with new and exciting projects. The interview was conducted via email during July 2008.

Jazz Review: What instrument do you compose on since drums is not ordinarily a compositional tool?

Bill Bruford: Piano or keyboard. When I first started writing, it was for the Bruford band and I spent a lot of time at the piano. Later, I moved onto a digital system, when MIDI was invented, and started to produce cheap and cheesy demos and now, I mostly use a computer and Sibelius, altho’ I’m not a quick learn on software. The last large block of writing I did was a few years ago for the Earthworks CD The Sound Of Surprise. I wrote most of the album and was pleased with the music, but I find it very hard work. As an untrained musician, you tend to end up writing the same song and you reach a point where you need a new influx of ideas or people to move you on. It could be different personnel in the group or perhaps a writing partner. Over the years I have had several partners. In Bruford, Dave Stewart, our keyboard player, helped considerably and in Earthworks, Steve Hamilton and Tim Garland often looked over my shoulder and corrected my schoolboy mistakes.

It’s difficult for a drummer to write for an extremely competent pianist like Steve or Django Bates because they look at the music and say "Well, I did this when I was at PRIMARY school". Consequently, I try and come from a strong rhythmic angle; I start with a drum groove which will suggest a bass line which, in turn, suggests a harmony, which suggests a melody. They are unlikely to think rhythmically like I would, so I can offer rhythmic ideas that may interest them. In general, if my tunes are up tempo they have started as a rhythmic idea and if they are slow, they have originated from a harmonic progression which suggested a tune. I love ballads. In fact, one of the favorite things I have done is the very slow, almost funereal ‘Come To Dust’ from The Sound Of Surprise.

My compositional process is very inconsistent. Often the music is written from the bottom up, with some rhythmic "engine" or "module" that kicks the thing into life. That becomes the heartbeat, and everything else is a more or less elaborate superstructure on top. I can fax a rhythmic idea, or series of ideas, to Tim Garland, and get a symphony back the next day (White Knuckle Wedding). I used to spend a lot of time, but now Tim writes a lot too, so the burden is shared. Inspiration usually comes from the prospect of utter humiliation if the thing isn't finished on time, or abject ridicule from other band members if it isn't good enough. Necessity is the mother of invention.

There have been times when I really wanted to write something for a particular ensemble. For example, I wrote a lot of stuff for the Bruford band in the late 70/early 80s. I also contributed to other people’s tunes and I would encourage all drummers to get stuck in with a piano or with a bass player. You can be writing music much sooner than you think you can. I spent a fair amount of time studying mallets and later, piano, and learning harmony out of a book. But, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a 12-bar blues was. In general, you just have to assign some pitches and, before you know it, you will have a bass line. For example, you come up with a drum groove that you like and want to play. The best thing to do is get a bass player on your side. If you assign some pitches to the bass drum pattern or part of the groove, you can get the bass player to play along with a part that fits your drum groove. If your guitarist or keyboard player is inspired to join in, you will soon have the beginnings of a tune and you are one third of the writing team. I started out like that with Yes and King Crimson. After that, it was sheer terror and the fear of humiliation that got me writing! If you have a studio full of musicians for a recording project, you have to provide some music for them to play.

Jazz Review: When did you determine that having your drums setup on a horizontal plane would prove beneficial? Did your progression with Earthworks, for example, prompt you to realign the placement of your drums to accommodate the jazz idiom while retaining the stylizations of your progressive-rock drumming?

Bill Bruford: Recently I’ve been laying the drums out flat, in a gentle curve. That’s based on the five tympani layout of a classical musician; I just find it easier to swivel a little to the left to open up the left side of the kit, rather than reach forward to the toms positioned in front of the snare as in the traditional set up. Additionally, you lose that right-hand-over-left hi-hat thing, which always seemed a bit awkward. The drawback is you need a relatively unavailable remote cable-hat, to be positioned directly in front of the central snare drum.

The set is symmetrical in the sense that there are two toms and two cymbals to the right of the central snare and hi-hat, and a similar setup, although different pitches, to the left. This makes for some nice combinations, or would do if I was ambidextrous. I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous. Plus, the less sophisticated listener tends to listen with his eyes first--with my set you can clearly and easily see which stick is hitting which drum. Also, the drums are out of pitch order, so that makes for some interesting phrasing.

Generally I've always been interested in unusual drums arranged in unusual ways, feeling that it might give me a different sound, or way of doing things. Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine, so the story goes, used to have them set up differently every night! I’m using a great set of Tama Bubingas. Tama have always been of the utmost help to me as an artist and musician. Logistics and costs these days tend to prohibit the use of elaborate drum and percussion set-ups at the types of gig I do with Borstlap or Earthworks.

Jazz Review: Your answer for some reason, sparked remembrances of British free-jazz percussionist Jamie Muir who performed with you on King Crimson's 1973 album Lark's Tongue In Aspic. How did that come about? And what did you learn from your collaboration with such an outside player?

Bill Bruford: Robert put together the personnel for a King Crimson without reference to others, so you never knew who was going to be there on day one. Sometimes it was another drummer, latterly Pat Mastelotto; in 1973 Jamie Muir. It was your job to get on with whomever was around. It's kind of the Miles method of band-leading; surround yourself with interesting people, lock them in a studio, and get out of the way. They'll probably produce an interesting, if not great album, if they don't kill each other first.

Muir taught me the best lesson ever - I exist for the music, the music does not exist for me. A simple enough lesson, I hear you say. Yes, certainly, but not if you're an over-praised and arrogant little twenty-two year old with gold records on the wall and the best paradiddle in south-west London, who's determined to use it. From him, I probably also picked up the idea that I would last longer and get further, while having more fun, if I approached music making as a process rather than a product.

Jazz Review: What is the near-term outlook for Earthworks? A new recording? Tour? Any additional duo or perhaps, group-based plans with Dutch keyboardist Michiel Borstlap?

Bill Bruford: I continue to run Earthworks only as long as I can find something useful, or at least meaningful to me, to do with it. Currently the group is parked, but there’s gas in the tank in case we need to make a quick start. Michiel and I have just released a CD called ‘In Two Minds’ are continuing to promote it here in Europe. After forty years without a break I’m perhaps not quite as keen on touring as I once was! I love the concerts when I get on stage, but the other stuff visas, baggage, delays may be rougher for us old guys who remember when this was easier, than the young guys who just take it as it is.

Jazz Review: At this point in your career, do you feel a musical or personal motivation to get back into the progressive-rock realm, whether full-time or perhaps a one-off type project?

Bill Bruford: Why would I do that? I left YES to join King Crimson, and left King Crimson to play jazz. Going backwards is not usually what I'm about. Progressive rock was a music that had it's place and time, but it doesn't hold anything for me personally now. I need some sort of reaction to what I play, some sort of conversation. I need some mystery in the process.

Jazz Review: As a student of drumming/percussion, did you try to emulate styles or techniques set forth by others and then integrate into your practice regimen?

Bill Bruford: Sure, don't we all? Isn't that how you learn? You copy, you emulate, you get it wrong, it comes out weird but you prefer this new thing you can play to the old thing you can't, and then you build on that. Broadly I wanted a unique sound in the way Art Blakey had a unique sound, the stick control of Joe Morello, and the elegance of Max Roach. Obviously, I failed miserably at all three, but in the process came to understand that my own thing would be OK. Hundreds of great players made me aware of the possibilities on the instrument. You get to work and hope for the best. I'm one of the last of the untrained guys - the Bonhams, Copelands, Blakeys - who just made it up as we went along. Now the standard is so high that most beginners rightly get the best local teacher they can afford to offer some encouragement and direction through the maze of possibilities.

Jazz Review: When operating the business side of Summerfold and Winterfold Records amid your recording and touring schedule, do you allot yourself time to practice? Do you feel a need to practice via a rigid discipline?

Bill Bruford: Sure, practicing is essential. I have to stay match fit. I’m not as unbearable as classical violinists who are insufferable to live with if more than three days passes without touching the instrument, but I feel cranky, and useless on the kit, after a week without playing. I try to tick over with an hour or two a day. All the usual stuff, mostly centered around trying to play four decent notes in a row. Rigid anything isn’t going to help.

Jazz Review: On that note, how are matters progressing with the record labels? Are you a one-man show in that regard?

Bill Bruford: Things are going well at my labels Summerfold and Winterfold, now distributed by Koch in the U.S., and sales are remarkably robust. I have a UK partner/distributor - Voiceprint - who manufactures, stores, ships, takes orders, mails out review copies, etc., but, of course, a 24/7 global business is going to consume all hours of the day, or as many as you put into it. The shop never closes. It’s hard work on top of the playing, touring, etc., but I’m fiercely proud of my two small labels and the thirty odd titles we have across the two.

Next up in February 2009, we’re releasing the Winterfold Collection 1978-1986, a collection of thirteen of the best Winterfold tracks taken from across six albums with Holdsworth et al, and the companion Summerfold Collection 1987-2008, a double CD package of twenty-two of the best Summerfold tracks across twelve albums. If you didn’t know anything about me and my pals at all, and wanted to stick a toe in the water, this is where you’d start.

Jazz Review: Tell me about your upcoming near and long-term plans? Any new recordings and/or collaborations on the horizon?

Bill Bruford: Sure, there’s always something new on the horizon! Summerfold’s next fresh release in early 2009 will be PianoCircus playing the music of Colin Riley featuring Bill Bruford:, and as you can tell, we haven’t got a title for it yet! Riley is an English composer who occupies the grey area between classical, jazz, and ambient electronica, known around here as ‘New Music.’ The CD is somewhat influenced by guitarist David Torn’s recent album called Prezens. Like Torn, Riley reserves the right to judiciously alter, or tamper with, or wreck what he hears, but in Torn’s case, the source material was mostly improvised, and in our case it is mostly written.

I’ve also written a book due for publication by Jawbone Press, September 2009 ( It’s about a musical life mine but more interestingly, it’s about the musical life in the broader sense, as I’ve lived it for four decades. It’s a series of observations about the musical life for a non-classical instrumentalist, based on and abstracted from my personal experience. Where we’ve been, and where we’re going with this..

It’s about the pleasures, perils, and pitfalls of playing percussion in public, certainly, but it’s also about what musicians do when they’re not trying to be rock stars, what they do in the ‘daytime.’ I’ve written it for the starry-eyed beginner, the seasoned pro and the inquisitive layman. The demand exists because it is evident from the many people I talk to that they haven’t a clue about what we instrumentalists do, or why we do it, and I thought I’d tell them. I very much enjoy talking to informed fans and commentators like yourself, but I’m equally intrigued in trying to explain the musical life to the layman. The danger we all face is that of preaching to the converted jazz guys playing only to jazz freaks who read jazz magazines, and drummers playing to other drummers reading drum mags at drum clinics.

The book will be compulsory reading for all those outside the music business who would like to be inside, and all those inside who would like to be outside. It’ll surprise the people who think they know me it’s not all beer and skittles out there, you know I’m excerpting from it right now over at my blog on my site.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bill Bruford
  • Subtitle: Sound of Surprise
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