Ten years into his post-drumming life, the percussion legend reflects on playing with British prog’s holy trinity, making the jump to jazz with Earthworks, and more
|12 Dec 2019|
|Arts & Culture|
|The following article was published in Rolling Stone, in October 2019: |
Retirement is a fluid concept in music, but at 10 years and counting, Bill Bruford’s just might be the real deal. Since he announced he was calling it quits in 2009, the prog drumming legend — who worked with Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis before founding his own long-running jazz group, Earthworks, and came in at number 16 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers list — hasn’t performed in public a single time, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“I think to play rock — to play any kind of music, actually, but particularly rock — for a drummer, you have to be completely committed to it,” he tells RS via phone from his home in Surrey, England. “You can’t half-ass play at rock, or at jazz, either, you’ve got to play jazz or play rock — or something in between like I always was. And I’m at the stage in life now where I just can’t summon up that commitment to play any kind of music, really. There’s other things I want to do now: write books and be with my grandkids and so forth.”
He’s doing pretty well on the writing front, having published a candid and insightful 2009 autobiography, followed by 2018’s Uncharted, a heady but often illuminating study of creativity in drumming, which grew out of the same research at the University of Surrey that earned him a PhD in Music in 2016. And in between spending time with family, he’s also attending to his extensive solo catalog, reissuing albums by his late-Seventies fusion band Bruford, his duo with Dutch pianist Michiel Borstlap, and Earthworks itself.
“I’m afraid I’ve got sucked into that whole ‘managing your legacy’ thing,” Bruford says. “I confess to being very soppy about all this, and I cannot help but acknowledge the weakness of wanting my work to live on after I’ve gone.”
One of Bruford’s latest archival projects is Earthworks Complete, a massive box set featuring the band’s entire studio and live output, plus extensive bonus material. Across more than 20 CDs and DVDs, the collection charts Earthworks’ evolution from a quirky, eclectic group built around Bruford’s Simmons electronic drums to a lean, muscular acoustic postbop outfit. In a broader way, it drives home how serious Bruford’s engagement with jazz was — and how, from the moment he left Yes at the height of their success to join King Crimson, a band that had blown his mind in 1969 and that he would play with on and off through 1997, he was always a musician who followed his own compass. (Click here to read Bruford’s thoughts on 12 of his favourite moments from his extensive discography.)
In a wide-ranging chat with RS, Bruford reflected on why he never looked back after quitting Yes, the thrills and frustrations of playing with King Crimson, his short-lived tenure with Genesis, making the jump from rock to jazz, his mixed feelings on the word “prog,” and more.
When was the last time you actually sat down at the drums?
Ten years ago. That’s not quite right. … I mean, I may have played a couple of Motown things in the first year off. And playing Motown music is such fun — holy cow. We had a local Motown band which was great for a couple of weeks. We did two or three private events. We had a nine-piece band, I think, horns and the lot. Tremendous singers. It was great.
But since then: No, I don’t play anymore, and a lot of people seem to find that very weird, but I don’t find that strange at all.
What was your favourite Motown song to play?
[Laughs] Oh, I don’t know — “Grapevine,” probably. Marvin Gaye’s thing. Just terrific.
So your new box set traces Earthworks from 1987 through the mid-2000s, but you’d been deeply into jazz since you were a teenager. Way back then, was it your life’s goal to play jazz? Would you have bypassed rock entirely if you’d had your choice?
I’m not sure I thought in quite black and white like that. Definitely everybody kind of liked rock — or here in the U.K. what we might call “beat music” at the time. You know, like the Liverpool scene and the Swinging Blue Jeans and people like that, and Billy J. Kramer and to a degree the Beatles. And I was with a bunch of older guys, and they were importing Riverside [jazz] records from California, and stuff. Yeah, it was [Art] Blakey and [Max] Roach, and I just found all that so much more exciting. I could understand right away what the drummer was doing. And I have trouble to this day with the repetition in popular music, and the sort of lack of interaction within so-called rock or pop as opposed to jazz. So I instantly sort of preferred the one.
But then in 1968, everything changed, really. Big year. Huge year. And I was seeing Hendrix playing with Roland Kirk at Ronnie Scott’s and stuff and that would make the shirt fall off your back with excitement. So there was this new thing emerging. I didn’t know what it was; I didn’t really know what a career in rock or jazz meant. I was about 17, 16; you’d go to clubs very early in the U.K. I hadn’t really thought about a career. I thought my father would probably explode if I told him him I wanted to be a drummer.
Going back to the first Yes album, which turned 50 this year, it struck me how the basic elements of the band’s trademark sound were already there: It’s not Close to the Edge, but it is a very intricate, advanced take on rock music. How did the sound become so fully formed so early?
I don’t know — you’d better credit Jon Anderson for that. He had been a pop singer called Hans Christian Anderson, I think, for a while, and that hadn’t worked out, and he thought, ‘I’ll make some more adventurous music, some stuff I’d like to make anyway. And it’ll have some classical music in it, and I’ll have a bunch of guys, and we’ll be able to sing like the Beach Boys, and you know, we’ll cover Fifth Dimension songs.’
And one of the things a lot of people miss about Yes, I think, is that it was just a covers band. And we started out just doing covers of lots of songs of the day, big Beatles songs, typically, Crosby and Stills, and I don’t know, Fifth Dimension, and even some West Side Story probably. And we learned to play those; we didn’t have a shared repertoire. A lot of the bands — like, say, Black Sabbath or something like that — came from the same street in Birmingham, or from Detroit, or somewhere. And we weren’t like that at all; we came from all different cultures and parts of the U.K., so we didn’t share a common music culture, a kind of rhythm & blues-based thing. We needed to take something and then change it, and it was through changing things that we came to know ourselves.
Was there sort of a breakthrough piece in terms of an original Yes composition?
Yeah, I think so. We toyed with a few original things which were kind of alright but not great. But I think, on reflection — I’ve had many years to think about this — the band hit its real template, really, with “Heart of the Sunrise,” which came up on [1971’s] Fragile. And that seemed to have it all; that was a shorter version of what was to become “Close to the Edge” and some of the longer-form things that we did. It probably only ran eight minutes or something, but we thought of it as a long song. And it had the drama and the poise and the kind of fey, pastoral English-y lyrics at the beginning where the music all gives way to a slightly feminine vocal. It had all the bits and pieces in place. Rough-hewn, maybe, but it was all there. Some would say maybe “Roundabout” was a better example, but we were finding our legs with both of those two.
Listening to your playing on those early Yes albums, it’s pretty clear that you were heavily into jazz. Were you consciously trying to bring that element into rock?
I knew no other way to play the drums; there wasn’t a choice here. I had no experience of hitting a drum any harder; I had no experience of what it might be like to be a Texan rhythm & blues drummer, so we are all just a mixture of whatever had been on our record players. And we loved it all, and I loved it all, and I pushed together everything I thought was of interest, and I didn’t realize it had to go a particular way; everything felt completely open. I felt I could do anything I wanted, really, on drums.
It’s hard to overstate how naive we were, how young we were, how fast everything was developing, how fast we were learning. And you know, nobody talked about groove; nobody had discovered the word “groove” really, which I’m not quite sure when that came along, but it certainly emanated from America. Around here, we didn’t talk about that somehow. We would still be “swinging” here, rather than grooving.
That quality of swing is a trait that seems to link together a whole generation of British rock drummers. I know that Yes opened for Cream at their farewell show at the Royal Albert Hall 1968 — was Ginger Baker a revelation in terms of the mixing of jazz and rock?
He was an influence, yeah — loved Ginger Baker’s stuff. He just was terrific, and he had a big, thick sound. Like Blakey, he could shake you; you’d feel it in the pit of your stomach. Really, really good. I loved that, and so different from those awful kind of British beat drummers from up north, Liverpool and stuff, that seemed so weedy and so feeble. So when I was very young, I wanted to be Ginger Baker, yeah. I wanted to have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and a large ride cymbal at 90 degrees. He was very important.
Did you know him?
Um, no. I knew of him. He was too frightening to speak to. So I saw him around, and he probably knew who this kid was a bit, but if you’re 15 or 16 and he’s 21, it just feels like an impossible gulf. But I loved some of his stuff, and the mid-Sixties stuff he did was just terrific, so I’m sad to see he’s gone. Having said that, he was a deeply unpleasant person, I think.
Reading your autobiography, it seems like you were getting pretty fed up with Yes’ process in the studio during Close to the Edge. But during, say, the period of Fragile, were you content and happy in the band then?
[Laughs] Well, I’m not good at content and happy. I don’t think it really comes with the artistic vocation, particularly. Because content and happy to most creative people means some kind of movement forward, and I champ a bit at the bit, like a horse, if it’s somehow going too slowly. And many would say I’m too fast; I should slow down; I should have waited longer with Yes; I should have waited longer with King Crimson, or whatever — no, I was kicked out of King Crimson, really, or King Crimson kept collapsing around me. And with hindsight, you do what you do; you’re the kind of person you are. And somewhere toward the end of Close to the Edge, I couldn’t stand the thought of another — you know, sleeping on the sofa and waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning and seeing Chris Squire just slowly turning another knob on the bass sound [laughs].
It became too much, and bear in mind also, by that point, I was probably 21 or 22 or something by then, and I’d only ever played with four other guys in my life, really. I played one or two side dates while I was trying to get ’round to playing with Yes. But I was phenomenally inexperienced, and it would’ve been great to play with almost anybody else and play any other kind of music. That’s how I was feeling around the end of Close to the Edge, and I just didn’t want to do the whole thing again because I knew they would only make the next one — it would take longer, it would cost much more, and it would go on and on and on forever, so I was right to leave; I was happy to leave.
It seems like such a mature decision for someone that young. Was there no part of you that was thinking about money and security rather than art?
Yeah, I was a very romantic guy. I’d done a fair bit of reading about artists, and I think I was big on suffering for your art, probably — a kind of ludicrous idea. But, yeah, I’m not stupid also. I mean, I’d just been on two blindingly successful albums, and there’s a thing called a royalty statement, and it hadn’t kicked in by then, and there was going to be a lot of lawyers between me and the money. But eventually I got paid, pretty well. I’ve never complained about not being paid. But I admit, it was kind of scary, I suppose, but it just felt like I was always earning more money next year than this year; I was on an upward trajectory, for sure. And I thought, ‘Well, King Crimson play well; they’ve got an audience.’ I didn’t think about it too much.
It was pretty shocking to read in your autobiography that when you left Yes, you had to give away half your royalties for Close to the Edge to their new drummer, Alan White.
Yeah. Well, I was advised to. “That would be nice,” said the manager, and so I did. And Alan — who’s a great friend of mine, and was wonderful — after about 40 years, I said to him, “Alan, we’ve had a good exchange here: I made the record, and you fantastically went around the world playing it and keeping the record alive, but I gave you half the royalties. So how ’bout we call it quits, and I have my other half of the royalties back? ‘Cause you know, it’s been a good bargain for both of us.” And he was a real gentleman; he said, “Sure, here’s your half of the record back.”
Oh, that’s great.
Isn’t that a lovely story?
So as far as the move to Crimson, was there ever a point after you made the move where you thought, ‘What the hell have I done?’ Or was it instantly a liberating feeling?
That’s definitely the feeling that was in the air [that] this is totally liberating to me. It felt really good, and the minute Robert [Fripp] played a bit of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One,” or something — and particularly “Part Two,” which was great — I thought, ‘This is it! This is what I came for.’ Absolutely terrific. So I was thrilled with that. And, again, hard to describe it more accurately than — we were rather a closed circle in that we weren’t aware of the world that might have said, “Wow, why did the drummer leave that band and go to another band?” It just wasn’t really in my thinking that much. What I knew was, that I was getting a cold shower. I was getting a whole kind of refreshment; I was detoxing. Maybe that’s a good word to use. Not that Yes was in any way toxic but I was having a change of life at age 22 or something, which was tremendous, and it ran for two years, until the end of Red, I guess. And by then, I’d picked up a whole lot more bruises, and a whole lot more experience and was getting better at most things I wanted to get better at, particularly playing the drum set, I think.
Well, if you were looking for a change, it seems like there could be nothing further from watching Chris Squire slowly turn knobs in the studio at 3 a.m. than being onstage with someone like King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir.
[Laughs] Yeah, I mean, Jamie was a completely … He was a character, and there’s never any video of him around, sadly, of him trying to climb the PA stacks — which was a dangerous thing to do, for a start — with blood pouring out of his mouth, hurling a chain at a thunder sheet back on the stage, missing Robert Fripp by not much. [Ed. note: Muir was known for climbing speakers and biting on blood capsules during performances.] So it was part circus and part surreal kind of performance art. And in a way, deeply theatrical, but deeply musical too; when he played the set, it was great. I mean, he was a little force of nature.
He didn’t start as a drummer, actually. He picked that stuff up a bit later on in life; he started as a trombone player, I believe. But he had poor lungs and poor blowing capacity, so he moved to drums. But also something of a philosopher. And he went off to become a monk, I think, in Scotland, for a while. So a very unusual guy. But he had a sort of force field. He was an energy person: You came into his magnetic field, and somehow your hair stood up on end and you were about to change in some way. I liked that. He was pretty rude about my stuff.
In what way?
Ah, he just thought I was kind of showing off on the drums [laughs]. And he was right. Until I met Jamie, I thought the band existed to amuse me; I didn’t realize I existed to try to make the music work. I was a typical overconfident, perhaps over-technical drummer who was determined to show off most of the time. I was very young! Very young. I apologize.
That had to have been a pretty big adjustment going from working on the material from Close to the Edge and then going onstage with Crimson and improvising for a half hour.
Yep, yep, that’s true. We had a bit of induction into that. I’d go over to Jamie’s house, and he’d lay out a bunch of percussion toys on the floor: small drums, little percussion instruments, rattles, shakers, and stuff. Yeah, and the two of us would just play: We’d scrabble around on the floor and we’d turn the tape recorder on and we’d record all sorts of stuff. And improvising is not something I find frightening in any way. I love improvising, whatever way it is, even this phone call. I’m thinking on my feet, as it were, and I don’t quite know where it’s going to go next, and I like that.
There was a fascinating quote that I read, you had said, “It is a common and thoughtless piece of journalism in general that lumps Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson all in the same thing. I can assure you, I can’t think of three more different organizations than the three and I have firsthand knowledge of all three …” That transition, from Yes’ Close to the Edge to King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, seems to drive home how wrongheaded it is, this whole “prog” classification that would peg two bands like that as a single thing.
Yeah. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That those British bands can now be lumped together as a genre called progressive rock — I think that’s fair enough for the point of discussing music. But personality-wise, you couldn’t find much [similarity] between, say, Jon Anderson and Robert Fripp, perhaps, or Jamie Muir and Chris Squire. These people were different! What they wanted was different; what they heard in their ears was different; what they thought music was for was different. What are you supposed to be doing with music? Is all it is nothing more than a three-minute kind of sweety on the end of a stick? Is that all it is, or is there a bit more to it? And how do we use it?
And King Crimson is more of a laboratory in that sense, I think, of what it’s possible to do within rock, and how might rock sound in the future, and when is rock not rock and where is the boundary of any of this, and so on and so forth. So it appealed to my conceptual side, King Crimson. I’ve liked the conceptual side of drumming and the conceptual side and purpose of being a musician far more than anything to do with the nuts and bolts of drumming. And if anybody ever asks me what kind of bass-drum pedal I use, I’ve never had the slightest idea [laughs], and I kind of go cold. So I’m not very interested in that aspect of things, but I am interested in the bigger sort of macro view of drumming and what drummers are for, and so forth. And so King Crimson could not have been a better band for me to be in because you could play anything you wanted so long as Robert hadn’t heard it, as they used to say.
In your autobiography, you describe this strange period during the making of King Crimson’s 1974 album, Red, when Robert sort of went silent and refused to offer an opinion on anything. What was that like? That album is considered to be a masterpiece, but it sounds like it was very difficult to make.
Deeply disturbing, really, and very difficult. You know, I have a thick skin, and I’ll bang on through it regardless to try to make the thing work, if humanly possible. But clearly Robert wasn’t… He was engaged, but in a different way than you or I would understand. So he was more or less playing, but without really saying anything or seemingly taking any enthusiastic participation in the project. So [bassist-vocalist] John Wetton and the engineer, George Chkiantz, and I finished it, with John leading, really, and it was a funny process. And Robert somewhere around there was experiencing all kinds of, I suppose, psychological difficulties of one sort and another. And I felt for him in a way. I mean, I always feel for people if they don’t seem to be engaged happily in our work together. But it was a very difficult album, very difficult. At the end of it, you just sort of throw down your sticks and think, oh, thank God that’s over.
Speaking of John Wetton, in your book, there was a really interesting description of your later band with him, U.K. You sort of described the group as having two factions, the arty side, with you and guitarist Allan Holdsworth, and the more commercial one, with John, who would later form Asia, and keyboardist-violinist Eddie Jobson. Was the difference in sensibilities really that stark?
[Laughs] Did I exaggerate it for simplicity? Probably. But I think there’s a deep truth in that. Again, I said, that people in these progressive-rock groups were pretty different and some range from the idea that by definition, if it’s good, it’s got to be a hit — you know, it has to be a hit record. I see no connection between it being a hit and the music being valuable; I can’t see a connection there at all. So on the one hand, you have the commerce guys who think that “I Love You, Kathy” should be the title of a song because Kathy is the most common female Christian name in North America, for example, or perhaps Debbie — “I Love You, Debbie.” And there are those people, right through to Jamie Muir, who wouldn’t understand anything I’ve said in the last 30 seconds, and Allan Holdsworth, who was a mercurial soul of brilliant technical capacity, and he would take my position, which is, he’s going to play what he’s going to play to the best of his ability and if the audience loves it, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s great too, that’s fine. So we covered both extremes, and I think it’s fair to say that.
I’m not advocating for one extreme or the other. Everybody’s entitled to put into and get from music whatever it is they can that gives meaning. And if what makes meaning for you is having a hit record, then great, except that I’m not the drummer for your band. As long as we were finding that out — as we did on the first [U.K.] record, which is terrific, great record, the first one … As we were finding that out, we sort of fell apart because we all knew somehow that we were stopping the group Asia from being Asia. It hadn’t been formed then, but you know what I mean: that John and Eddie and people would want to go on and make hugely popular music, and that’s fantastic for them.
Speaking of hugely popular music, I loved the part in your autobiography where you’re talking about your friend Phil Collins’ move toward pop. It seems like you really admired how unguarded and soulful his early solo songs were.
Well, I can’t help but admire such an amazingly direct connection between performer and audience — when the performer does something and millions of people acknowledge that and say how strong it was. I think it’s fantastic. I love music that’s popular — I’m not very good at making it very popular. Similar with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” [Ed. note: Yes’ 1983 hit from after Bruford left] too — if whatever these people do can be condensed into this little three-minute thing, or five-minute thing even, and Phil was big at that time on kind of “the divorce album,” and clearly it really hit home, so I like that. I think I preferred that to, say, “Supper’s Ready,” or something from Genesis.
I’m hugely involved in music that I have some emotional connection to. I love that. If I have co-written something, or I’ve been asked to play it, or something, or play something that my colleagues have written, that’s great. I’m not a great session man. And I found that out in ’76, too, when I was working with Genesis. A proper drummer like Steve Gadd would know exactly what to do in that circumstance. And for me, I’m sort of a bit uncomfortable doing it, and nine months was about all I could do of that, I think.
Just because you really had no creative input — you were just doing a job?
Indeed, there’s very little creative input. When these bands — and that would be the case on many of the very late King Crimson tours and/or the Yes tour I was on in ’91, I think, or ’92, somewhere around there — where the bands can really only function because they’re not being asked to create anything together. The minute they were asked to create new music, new material, do something different, then of course, all hell breaks loose and everybody falls apart, but so long as they’re just sticking to legacy music, to heritage stuff, and you just play Fragile all the way through or Close to the Edge all the way through onstage, then of course those bands can function, but on the more difficult, creative side that you might have found in Earthworks, for example — which people love — then that’s going to be harder.
There’s this cliché among rock drummers that they’ll often say that what they really want to do is play jazz. But it’s rare that anyone really jumps in as wholeheartedly as you did, and for so long. When you first started Earthworks, was it important to you to make a really all-in commitment when you first started and not just be dabbling or paying lip service?
Yes, in a way. Nobody wants to be seen as dabbling. It’s humiliating and it’s a disservice to your colleagues and jazz musicians generally. Added to which, there’s an old adage which says that, if you want to cross the lake and get to the other side, you’re going to have to leave one shore to get to the other shore; you can’t keep your legs on both shores.
But there was a time when I was definitely going between big rock tours with [Yes spin-off] Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe or Yes, or something, and then coming back home and doing Earthworks and [pianist] Patrick Moraz or Michiel Borstlap or [guitarist] David Torn or [bassist] Tony Levin, or any one of the guys that I love to play with. So yes, I was going between the two, and there’s a lovely line from the actor Sean Connery who put that very well: He went to Hollywood and did James Bond movies for much too much money and then would come back and play the Royal Shakespeare Company on a salary that wouldn’t feed a dog. That’s very much a balance that musicians who are going to last more than three weeks at this learn how to do. One feeds the other, of course.
One thing that’s fascinating to me about Earthworks is that you almost seemed excited that the early musicians in the band basically had no idea who you were — or at least had never heard Yes and King Crimson.
[Laughs] I just think that’s lovely. Some would find that surprising. I didn’t find that surprising at all, particularly; I mean, jazz guys don’t typically survey big stadium rock; they don’t know about that [genre] much — they’re too busy doing other things. Same with classical musicians who don’t know much about jazz; it’s still a fairly segmented world.
So in this first period of Earthworks, one thing that really stands out to me is that there’s kind of a lightheartedness to it, or a joyfulness to it, that really contrasts with, say, the Red era of King Crimson. Was that something you were wanting to do, lighten things in a way?
No, I don’t think I had stipulated that. When you sit down and talk to a couple of guys and say, “Well, let’s try doing a band and here’s the thing, I’m going to play some electronic drums, and what I’d really like to do is play some of the chordal and harmonic movement in the music off electronic pads, and if you guys play single notes, then at least it’ll sound unusual and you will sound different because you’ll have a different-sounding percussive texture and terrain behind you.” And everybody got on board with that plan.
I don’t think I said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if it was light and fun?” But the guys in the band are like that. They express sadness and melancholy in different ways. For example, [saxophonist] Iain Ballamy has this beautiful ballad on the first [Earthworks] album called “It Needn’t End in Tears,” which is absolutely screaming for a lyric. Later, on an album called All Heaven Broke Loose, [multi-instrumentalist] Django Bates had a piece called “Candles Still Flicker in Romania’s Dark,” which is about, under [Nicolae] Ceaușescu, the remaining orphans stuffed in orphanages without any parents and stuff. It’s just horrific, and we’d get these nightly TV pictures, you know. And the way he would express that is different from the way John Wetton would do “One More Red Nightmare”; it’s a different sensibility, and Django’s is a very delicate one and very beautiful. So no, I didn’t stipulate anything like that at all; you just hope everybody can find a way in a group so that it’s balanced, and unlike [the band] U.K., it’s going to go further and there isn’t a permanent tension in it.
You’ve talked about how in the early years of Earthworks, you’d be playing these jazz gigs and people would show up with Yes albums for you to sign. Was there a point when you felt like you had escaped that gravity somewhat and established Earthworks as its own thing? How long did that take?
Hard to know, really. Everything takes a while, for sure. And I think it’s fair to say [that it’s] a characteristic of all my great American friends that, on the whole, once you’ve established in the American psyche that you are a good baseball player, you can’t suddenly change and say, “Guess what, guys? I really love baseball, but guess what, I’m a tennis player. And now I want you to love me as a tennis player.” You know, Americans will love you once and love you really a lot once, but they don’t thank you at all if you want to change. And I don’t mind that. You know, I think Europeans are slightly different about that: They’ll kind of take you more as they find you on that night.
And it’s a huge generalization, but broadly, once you’ve established yourself in America, riches and beautiful young women are lavished upon you and you are feted and it’s lovely, except that you are also incarcerated. So there’s a feeling of that from the musician’s aspect, I think. And I didn’t mind — I’m happy to sign a Close to the Edge album and I’m happy to be called the drummer from Yes, if that’s what people want to call me. I don’t care. I know what I’m doing, so it’s not going to change much, whatever you call me.
Spending time with the full Earthworks catalogue, I really enjoyed the move to the acoustic group in the later years — it feels really stripped-down and vital. Did you feel that with that shift that you were moving closer to the centre of what you were meant to do as a bandleader?
Yes, I suppose one is always trying to get closer to that centre, although the centre might keep moving, as you as an individual keep learning and changing what you want — it comes and goes a fair bit. But the idea I think at the time of a visceral kind of muscular acoustic music, along the line of [bassist] Dave Holland and The Razor’s Edge and that kind of thing was just gripping. And I didn’t realize that you could lay into a drum set fairly heavy with acoustic music. I don’t think I really realized that. And you need a strong bass player — holy cow. And how those upright bass players — like [Earthworks’] Mark Hodgson — how they hang on in there sometimes when the going gets tough is amazing. So I love those records too: I thought The Sound of Surprise was one of my favourite records that we did of that era. Did you hear that one?
Oh, yeah, it’s great.
That one I liked a lot. And it was a very poor seller, and it was the one that nobody really noticed. It probably came out under the shadow of some other big record that came out at the same time, I guess. But that was one of my favourites. So, yeah, I liked the band around that time; it was great. And we had an American agent, Ted Kurland — we were doing good stuff.
One of the Earthworks record titles, A Part and Yet Apart, seems to reflect your feelings of being in between these two worlds of jazz and rock. What was the most validated you ever felt by the jazz community at large, and what was the most excluded?
Ooh, these are hard questions … Most validated by the jazz community? Oh, God, I don’t know. The first Earthworks record turned up in USA Today and got nice reviews from some of the better critics in the States particularly. If you call that some sort of a validation, that’s nice. Being not validated, I don’t recall that, really. I wouldn’t notice that, sorry.
Did you have a sense that there were listeners that were coming in from the rock side and you were opening them up to the larger world of jazz?
Oh, yeah, You’d hear that a lot at Earthworks gigs. People would come because it was me, but they’d go out liking jazz. So you would hear the line, “Well, I didn’t think I really liked jazz at all, but if that’s jazz, I really like it.” You know, so I was a part and yet apart — a part of it and part away from it, in a way. And I had a distinct feeling, yeah, that we turned a number of people on to jazz that otherwise wouldn’t have come to anything like an instrumental evening of music. Just that, just an evening without a vocal song — they’d generally steer away from that.
That must have been gratifying in and of itself, as someone who had grown up with jazz, just feeling like you were opening people’s minds to it.
That’s very gratifying. I loved it. And if that’s acceptance, that’s great, and I feel that I have a function doing that, and I feel I can do it well, and yeah, very happy. No problems.
In your autobiography, you mention that Max Roach, one of your early heroes, came to see King Crimson. Were you able to form any kind of meaningful relationship with him over the years?
I couldn’t say meaningful. He said a lot of nice things about me. I met him a couple of times and was able to cover a couple of his bits of music. I’ve studied his drumming a fair bit. Loved his work, told him that. He was a very gracious guy.
We were connected by a guy called Steve Apicella who was a video director and Steve brought Max down to several King Crimson gigs and indeed an Earthworks gig. I can see him now, and I’ll tell you where it was; it was at the Montreal Jazz Festival. And there was a whole bunch of drummers in the first two or three rows to hear these so-called electronic drums that I was doing with Earthworks. And Max was very nice about it after the show, very sweet, but no, beyond that kind of professional relationship, I didn’t have any other connection with him. Lovely guy.
Still, that must have been incredible to play in front of someone who inspired you to play in the first place.
Lovely, lovely. And so if you talk about validation, yeah, if you like, that’s validation, sure.
Speaking of influences and inspirations, you have to be aware that so many drummers in, say, contemporary metal have hailed you as a big influence. Does that make its way to you?
Oh, that’s lovely. It has, yeah, indeed. And, you know, when Kurt Cobain said something nice about Red, there was some big validation there going on, I think, ’cause suddenly a whole army of young people said, “What’s King Crimson and what does Red mean?” Yeah, you know, [ex–Dream Theater drummer] Mike Portnoy, for example, has always been very generous in his assessment of my feeble efforts but apart from that, yeah, I’m thrilled.
Was getting into the Hall of Fame with Yes a big deal for you?
That’s a good question. Well, not really as much as I probably made it out to be to the owners and people who run the Hall of Fame who need constant reinforcement that their show is the best show on Earth and that we’re all lining up to be in the Hall of Fame [laughs]. I was thrilled to be included and it was a lovely acknowledgement and I took the evening for what it was. The statuette is probably in my bathroom somewhere — I’m not very big on trophy rooms and things. So I’m just not good at prizes, really. To have your work acknowledged by Max Roach or somebody is probably worth more than a Hall of Fame statuette, but hey, I’m happy to go along with it. I’m not the curmudgeon who just can’t stand the idea of being invited or who just complains all the time about not being invited. I’m easy on it.
What did you think of Rick Wakeman’s speech?
Boy, that went on a long time! Well, unfortunately it was hilarious [laughs]. But you know, it’s like, [mock-exasperated] “Rick!” We were dying of embarrassment up there, and that’s all I can say — that’s Rick. You get Rick loose on a stage, he’ll tell you something like that.
Would it mean something to you to see King Crimson get into the Hall of Fame?
It would. I don’t think it ever will because I don’t think Robert would ever go along with that. I mean, if I’m not super-enthusiastic, I think he’s even cooler. So I wouldn’t want to speak for him, but deep down, he’d probably love it, but I don’t think he’d accept it, somehow. I don’t know — what do I know? He’s changed a lot over the years and so have I.
Are you in close touch with Robert these days, or any kind of touch?
Not really, no. I mean, his organization is very agreeable; I know lots of the guys in the band. When King Crimson was playing recently here in London, I was backstage with my old buddies like Jakko Jakszyk and Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto and those guys, and Robert looked in and said hi, and that’s about that, really. Everybody said, “Oh, come on and play ‘Schizoid Man,’ or something,” and I said, “Don’t be silly — I haven’t touched the drums for 10 years.” It got a bit like that — it was just fun seeing them.
I like to breeze through this stuff a bit. Yes asked me to announce them onstage at the Palladium, which is a bit like our version of Radio City Music Hall. The Palladium is a big theatre that the British are much in love with, and standing on that and bringing on the members of Yes seemed kind of bizarre because I think the audience, rabid Yes fans, probably wanted me to play something, but what I was there to do was say hello and get the band onstage.
So I can’t help but wonder about your feelings on the term “prog.” If you talk to Robert Fripp, he has this sort of allergy to it.
Oh, yeah, yeah, indeed. It is a singularly ugly word, isn’t it?
[Laughs] Well, where are you at with it?
It’s so ugly. I like the idea of progression because that’s what I thought all musicians were supposed to do. I hadn’t heard any country music; I didn’t know that you just kind of didn’t do that [laughs]. Although I understand country music has progressed. I’m comfortable with the sentiment around the word. “Prog” is just so ugly; it’s just awful. I can’t give you any more than that, I don’t think.
There’s so much talk about a stigma developing against that movement around the late Seventies. As someone associated with it, did you ever feel that?
Well, I’ve noticed that but I’ve been around so long of course that I’ve seen things go out of fashion and come back in fashion again. So there’s plenty of time in the Eighties, you know, the height of grunge or punk or somewhere, where anything progressive was just kind of laughed at. But I’m cool with that; it really doesn’t bother me at all, because I know sure as hell it’s going to reverse. So if you’re around for more than 40 or 50 years, you’ll hear it coming back in one way or another and a new generation will discover it. And there’s a lot of young musicians. There’s a great band out of Chicago called District 97, who are very good, and they’re here in the U.K. right now. And you know, it’s the next generation of so-called progressive guys who played much better than we ever played.
But they have to find their own way, though it’s difficult, because we’ve taken a lot of space. We old boys took up a lot of loose slack that was lying around that we could use for our progression. But those guys now are in a world where they have 50 years of tremendous popular music — or more. A hundred years of tremendous popular music, recorded and kept, retained, captured, that they now have to produce something better than that. So that’s how this works. It’s a tall order; it’s not easy.
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