Oct. 23 2006
Bill Bruford

Bill Bruford

Earthworks

TAMA :This year (2006) marks the 20th anniversary of your electro-acoustic jazz group Earthworks. What is the group up to these days?

Bill : Lots of stuff. This year (2006) we had a burning big-band CD of the group’s greatest hits recorded live at Iridium Jazz Club in N.Y.C; that was released in the Spring on my new label Summerfold Records. We’ve been touring hard; Spain, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, UK, New York, and loving it. Upcoming plans include the release of two volumes of new and archive Anthology material on DVD, chronicling the history of the band from the electronic drum days of 1986 to the present. We have some great unreleased footage.

TAMA : Tell us about the World Drummer’s Ensemble.

Bill : This is an occasional group that operates mostly in Europe. The idea is that four percussion masters, global leaders in their respective disciplines, come together for a highly-charged musical exchange; explosive, unpredictable, and unusual. We’ve got Doudou N’Diaye Rose (Senagalese master of the sabar), Chad Wackerman, (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth), Luis Conte (Madonna, Michael Jackson), and myself (Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks), and we are known internationally as the World Drummers Ensemble. For anybody who is still not persuaded by the astonishing and increasing grip of the percussive arts as an innovative force in music across continents, this Dual Disc CD / DVD offers conclusive proof, were any needed, that rhythm beats at the heart of all things.

TAMA : Are there any other projects are you currently involved with?

Bill : I’m also working with Dutch keyboardist and pianist Michiel Borstlap in a duo called Bruford-Borstlap. We have a CD and DVD out also, and it has been met with a really encouraging response. I also spend too much time on my two new small labels, Summerfold Records (www.billbruford.com/summerfold) and Winterfold Records (www.billbruford.com/winterfold). There are some 25 titles out now, the latest of which is an archive DVD featuring my old partners from the late 70s, Allan Holdsworth (guitar) and Jeff Berlin (bass), called Rock Goes To College. All this stuff is available at the shop at www.billbruford.com

TAMA : Of your vast body of recorded works, which 3 albums do you feel best represent your drumming and why?

Bill : Well, I’ve come a long way in the last 40-odd years, so it kind of depends what you are looking for. The early days of progressive rock? That’s Close to the Edge by Yes. It was a magic record – nobody really knew how the thing got finished. Fusion? One of a Kind, by my group Bruford, mostly because of Allan Holdsworth’s amazing contribution. From King Crimson I liked Red and Discipline. I also liked the first Earthworks CD, and maybe the big band Earthworks Underground Orchestra. Was that three?

TAMA : What would you say has been your most memorable live performance?

Bill : Early gigs in Tokyo with our new pianist Gwilym Simcock. He played so well I felt I had to reach deeper into my bag to find something more to amuse him with. Madison Square Garden, New York, when my entire electronic rig of Simmons went down, just before a duet with Alan White. He thundered away from about 20 yards away across a round stage, and I was left with a hi-hat, cymbals, and a snare drum. Should’ve been playing TAMA!

TAMA : There was a period in King Crimson when you were playing double drums with Pat Mastelotto. What were the challenges and rewards you experienced in performing with another drummer?

Bill : Double drummer work is paradoxically more confining and more liberating; confining in the sense that if you've agreed to play it, you've got to play it, and liberating because if one of you has the simple, the other can offer the complex. With King Crimson, Pat Mastelotto and I opted for two big areas, sometimes simultaneously. The first was metrical stuff – meters within meters, wheels within wheels – the effect of a big slower pulse with a small, quicker pulse running around inside it. The band with two hearts... these developments in metric modulation, superimposition, and illusion, well demonstrated by Billy Kilson with Dave Holland, or Trilok Gurtu, or Gavin Harrison, will certainly provide the next big series of challenges for us rhythmatists. The second area was timbral – comparing and contrasting electronic to acoustic, mallet to stick, wood to metal, big and slow to light and fast. This stuff, of course, doesn't just have to be with two drummers. It works fine with the bass player, so long as he is of independent spirit!

TAMA : Let’s talk some gear. Can you outline the kit that you are currently using the most?

Bill : I only have one kit so not only do I use it the most, I use it all the time! TAMA Starclassic Maple in Royal Walnut finish... 9x10, 11x12, 12x13 and 16x16 toms, all with Sound Focus Rings, a 16x18 bass drum, and my TAMA signature snare drums.

TAMA : Why do you prefer having the Sound Focus Rings on your toms?

Bill : I have a very bright open attacking tom sound, so I can use a little bit of the muting effect of the sound focus rings. Plus, I have an old suspicion that they help keep the drum round. Probably an Old Wive’s Tale!

TAMA : Why did you decide to use both maple and birch in your signature snare drums? Were you able to achieve your ideal snare sound?

Bill : I felt the blend of the two would give me the best of both worlds, and it has!

TAMA : You keep all your toms at roughly the same level, angled flat. Why is that, and how did you develop this unconventional setup?

Bill : For the past couple of years I’ve been laying the drums out flat. That’s based on the 5 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 setup. Additionally, you lose that right-hand-over-left hi-hat thing, which always seemed a bit awkward.

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 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.

TAMA : Was it difficult getting used to this arrangement, or did it feel natural right away?

Bill : With all that open space on my left – I practiced quite a bit to find more interesting things to do on that side. Not immediately comfortable, but it’s fine now, and is very weird being on the basic 5 piece now.

TAMA : You were a true pioneer of drumming in many respects, one being your fusion of acoustic and electronic elements. Do you ever see yourself experimenting with electronics again, or is that a closed chapter in your life?

Bill : Earthworks, born 1986, was based around the idea that the electronic drumset, recently able to play all manner of chordal, sampled, pitched or un-pitched rhythmic material, had come of age, and was a serious instrument that could be used seriously in jazz. The idea was that I would play much of the chordal material, and that I would find some young open minded players from the growing UK jazz scene, which was very hot at the time, and have them play single lines on top. I knew a brilliant local tenor player, Ian Bellamy, that I'd used on some demos and he introduced me to the astonishing Django Bates. I liked both individually, but better still they were very close as people, a musical double act, a real partnership. They were essentially the backbone of the first edition, and we are now on to a second, acoustic edition of the band.

Trying to do the harmonic stuff from pads was a self-inflicted punishment that drove me crazy. Wisely, no other drummers seemed keen to leap into that particular quicksand.  Any musician worth his salt always wants to push these new instruments past their design capabilities. And the manufacturer always wants a high level endorser to get behind the instrument, in this case Simmons electronic drums, often before the equipment is really ready for the market – a recipe for disaster. I spent months with hexadecimal midi-code, trying to get reluctant instruments from several manufacturers to cooperate, and it was a heavy ride. But the results could be spectacular – “Industry” and “No Warning” from King Crimson, “Stromboli Kicks” from Earthworks’ Dig?, “Bridge of Inhibition” from Earthworks, and “All Heaven Broke Loose” from the CD of the same name. But in the fourteen or fifteen years I was actively on board, I suppose I gave rise to no more than a couple of dozen compositions which were absolutely a function of electronic percussion, and whose charm arose uniquely from that instrument. At about one a year, that’s not a great output, given the time it took. But I don't regret a minute of it, and it was driven by both the necessity and the desire to find interesting things to do on a drum kit. Never say never, but I think it is probably a closed chapter for me.

TAMA : Lastly, just for fun… if you could assemble a “supergroup” of any musicians, living or beyond, who would you choose and what would be the musical direction?

Bill : Tim Garland (saxes, bass clarinet, flute), Gwilym Simcock (piano), Laurie Cottle (bass), and myself on drums, and it would sound a whole lot like Earthworks! I’m fortunate enough to play the music that I want, with the people I want, where I want, and when I want. Doesn’t get any better.