A Few Words With...Bill Bruford

Interview by John A. Wilcox

I surely don't need to tell anyone reading this who drummer extraordinaire Bill Bruford is. For this interview, I challenged myself to only ask BB questions relating to his 3 most recent projects. No Yes, King Crimson, UK, Earthworks. Just Bill Bruford front and center right now! Needless to say, he delivered the goods...

PS: Skin And Wire - The CD of Colin Riley songs with Pianocircus is your final recording session. What attracted you to this project?

BB: Increasingly I feel drawn to recording with people for whom rock is a foreign language. It seems the only way I can make sense of my own contribution, or be sparked to contribute in the first place, is if the other participants are from another place, another country, preferably as far away from me as possible. I'd probably be great in an ensemble of Azerbaijani nose-flute players. Hence the attraction in working with Colin Riley and Pianocircus, and the Skin And Wire CD. (Audio at www.myspace.com/skinandwire if you're interested). Pianocircus are highly-trained classical musicians who've gone straight from modern-repertoire classical piano to electronica, and by-passed rock altogether. So they are unfamiliar with progressive rock, the 70s and the whole schmeer that I grew up with. How liberating! Last time that happened was with Django Bates and Iain Ballamy and the young Earthworkers of 1986, all of whom were unwittingly allowing me to start again, without the baggage. Nice feeling.

PS: Did you go into it with the awareness that it was to be your last?

BB: Yes - this was recorded late 2008

PS: What did you enjoy most about the session?

BB: I think the fluent use of the laptop recording is brilliant these days. It really is another instrument around which the project pivots. The album was midway between programmed sources that were replaced by live performances, live performances that gave rise to further programming ideas, treatments of existing performances, pure live performance, and all possible blends in between. All audio sources were up for grabs to be enhanced, twisted or destroyed at will. Nothing was sacred, and nothing was written to fit a pre-determined style. The end result is sort of an audio stream of consciousness, quite trippy, at times dreamy. Wonderful - I like this twilight world between the computer-assisted performance and the performance-assisted computer. If I were 23 that's where I'd live. But I'm not nifty enough with a computer. Colin is.

PS: Listening to the Moraz / Bruford Tokyo CD brought back happy memories of the Toad's Place gig from that tour. Did you and Pat have a good time on what was surely a unique tour?

BB: We were both on the lookout for something different from our heavy day-jobs - me with Crimson, he with the Moody Blues. A two man improvising outfit with no equipment other than a pair of drumsticks was different alright. We weren't at all sure it would work - either for audience or us, and it has to work for one or other, if not both. But Patrick has a full-blooded rhythmic style and an active left hand, which covers the full range of the piano, so he dug the seat-of-the-pants, no-rehearsal freedom.

There's something very scary about being the only person onstage with a crowd of 600 (drum clinics) or with just one other person tho'. No place to hide, and the music had better be good.

PS: Were there any challenges bringing those studio pieces to the live stage?

BB: No. What we did in the studio we did live, and vice-versa.

PS: Were any of those shows filmed professionally, or is there no footage of that tour?

BB: Yes, the Tokyo concert was filmed. Winterfold has a second-generation copy of this, but is I think it would be prohibitively expensive with rights, clearances, and productions costs to get it released as a full blown DVD.

PS: Your autobiography was a fascinating, insightful read. Was there ever any hesitancy on your part to be so open, so laid bare about yourself and your perceptions of other musicians?

BB: Rather the opposite - something of a desire to do exactly that. I felt over thousands of interviews on the promotional stump over the years, that I'd spilt much ink answering nothing. When you're in business, you're selling, and the customer doesn't want the complexities. That's OK, but eventually I became backed up and keen to say it the way I saw it. A book is a great way to get it all out, but ultimately it must entertain and amuse the reader. It's written for the interested layman who knows little or nothing of the drum / jazz/ prog / recording / music world - my world - and would like to know more.

PS: While all musicians deal with expectation from an audience, musicians with an extensive body of work must surely deal with another level of expectation - to recreate their past, perhaps. When you hit the stage, is there a mind set that allows you to disregard expectation and just enjoy playing? If so, how does one best achieve that?

BB: Well, we could start with a little honesty. Are you playing the music that occupies your highest sensibilities to the best of your ability for as much of the time as possible? If not, you're letting yourself down and deluding - or failing to delude - the audience. Assuming you can answer yes, everything else is immaterial when you hit the stage, including but not limited to whether the audience likes it or not. That's their business. Whether they like it or not is largely beyond your control. So, much of this is done before you ever get to the stage. If you're in the rehearsal room with like-minded people playing the music you must play, everything else will take care of itself.

Everyone has different strategies, but sadly the vast majority of popular musicians in my experience turn into human jukeboxes and play to expectations. Call me unreasonable, but I thought we, the musicians, could do better than that, and that you, the listeners, deserved more, and you were paying us to deliver more. But ultimately those considerations were academic - I played what I played because I had to, otherwise the whole thing was a meaningless mistake, and I'd sacrificed a 'proper job' with a regular salary in a normal life for some sort of a charade.

PS: With 40 years of recording and performing under your belt, was there ever "that one that got away?" Or do you leave it behind well satisfied?

BB: No. I'm enormously gratified that I've consistently had a good hearing and an equally good paycheck. I understand from others that that is rare. I've been fortunate in mostly playing the music I want with whom I want, when I want and where I want. I also had the good sense to be born in 1949, which put me - in 1968 aged 19 - at a great time of cultural upheaval. All kinds of stuff was happening - multi-track recording, student riots in Paris and elsewhere, Vietnam, the stereo long-player, FM radio, civil rights - the stage was set for rock music to happen big, and I was fortunate to be swept up in it for a while and spun off into jazz.

PS: What can we look for next from Winterfold & Summerfold?

BB: Skin And Wire is barely out of the box yet - give me a break! But next up on Summerfold is the re-release of One by Pete Lockett's Network of Sparks. It's a group we had briefly about 10 years ago and a CD that came and went way too fast. Over a decade Pete has since become a leading authority on world multi-percussion, and has played with everyone including Peter Gabriel and Afro-Celt Sound System to Bjork and David Torn. The CD will be the third percussion group CD at Summerfold, joining the World Drummers Ensemble and the New Percussion Group of Amsterdam. Winterfold's next is as yet undecided.

PS: Please tell me 6 CDs you always enjoy listening to.

BB: The more I listen the more I find an enormous attraction to the stuff I listened to as a kid, the stuff that made me want to be a musician in the first place. It seems to me to be just as good, and hold just as much power for me now as it did then. On one level music has progressed unrecognisably since the 60s; on another, nothing has changed at all. Passion remains passion, no matter which decade you live in.

Keith Jarrett - My Song
Frank Sinatra - Songs For Swingin' Lovers
Boz Scaggs - Middle Man
Dave Holland Sextet - Pass It On
Elgar / Yo-Yo Ma - Cello Concerto Op.85
Ray Charles - Genius + Soul = Jazz


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