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News > Arts & Culture > Music > OT, Bill Bruford, (FH 62-67) features in a recent article in the Financial Times

OT, Bill Bruford, (FH 62-67) features in a recent article in the Financial Times

The musician on playing with 1970s prog rock titans in their pomp, learning to make less noise and his new career box-set
20 May 2022

Please see this story below by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the Financial Times Recently 

One of the most acclaimed drummers in rock history is beating out a rhythm on the table as he awaits the arrival of a decaf Americano. Compared with the intricately supple time signatures for which Bill Bruford is famed, this one is a straightforward 4/4. “Right, left, right, left,” he says. “On two surfaces it sounds like this.” The beat gets funkier as he begins drumming with his right hand on his leather briefcase. My lesson in the art of percussion takes place in a café in Guildford, the prosperous commuter town in Surrey, south-east England. Bruford, 72, lives with his wife Carolyn in the Surrey Hills countryside nearby. It’s an incongruous location in which to encounter a celebrated rock drummer, although there’s a symbolism too: it was in another café, now long gone, where Bruford made his start. In 1968, when he was 19, he was among a group of musicians who gathered in the basement of a coffee shop in London’s West End to choose a name for their band. There, in the depths of the Lucky Horseshoe, was born Yes, the pioneering progressive rock group. Three of their songs open the new box-set Bill Bruford: Making a Song and Dance. They’re exuberant relics from the days when 10-minute epiphanies about the power of sunrise with changes in metre between 6/8 and 3/4 (with a bit of 5/8 thrown in for good measure) could not only expand the formal properties of rock but also make stars of their creators.

Bill Bruford performing with King Crimson in 1973 © Ian Dickson/Redferns

“Popular music is supposed to be three chords and the truth, and everyone can bang it out — that’s why it’s popular,” Bruford says. “But there are other popular musicians who wish to do more than just those three chords.” Just how much more is attested by his six-CD career retrospective. Two bands other than Yes dominate its 70 tracks. One is King Crimson, the fiercest and most progressive prog act of all, which Bruford joined in 1972. The other is Earthworks, which he formed in 1986 in order to explore his first musical love, jazz. There are also numerous collaborations, ranging from songs with British folk-rocker Roy Harper to instrumentals with Japanese guitarist Kazumi Watanabe. Drum solos are a funny old thing. Mostly kind of laughable. They have an interesting origin back in vaudeville “My pleasure in music”, he says, “has always been that it’s something you do with other people in real time, preferably with a lot of string, gut and cymbal metal.” Actual musical instruments, in other words, not the touch of a button: “There are many great ways of making music with computers, of course, but that’s not my particular way.” He began drumming as a boy, inspired by American jazz greats such as Art Blakey, who he used to watch, enthralled, on a weekly BBC television show in the early 1960s. “I can see it in my mind’s eye now,” he recalls. “Art Blakey on a drum rise above [trumpeter] Freddie Hubbard. The music didn’t go anywhere without Art’s say-so. And I just thought, this guy’s taking total charge.” His background was a world away from the black American jazzers he idolised. Growing up in Kent, he was privately educated, like other British prog-rock notables — the members of Genesis, for instance, a band with which Bruford had a brief and unhappy stint drumming as a hired hand in 1976.

With Genesis in 1976 (from left to right): singer Phil Collins, Bill Bruford, guitarist Steve Hackett,
bassist Mike Rutherford and keyboard player Tony Banks in Central Park, New York © Michael Putland/Getty

At Tonbridge boarding school, he developed his understanding of jazz with a clique of like-minded friends who preferred Coltrane over Hendrix. Progressive rock gave him the opportunity to combine both forms. Rather than being tethered to a simple backing beat for prancing vocalists and guitarists out front, Bruford insisted on taking a more open-ended role. His playing was geared as much to creating melody as to keeping time, with deft use of polyrhythms and precisely placed accents. He favoured delicacy and groove over explosive displays of showmanship, like the 10-minute drum solos of prog-rock infamy. “Drum solos are a funny old thing. Mostly kind of laughable. They have an interesting origin back in vaudeville,” he says. “Usually if I’m going to foreground the drums, it’ll be over a vamp of some sort so you can see what it is that I’m playing against, which is much more interesting. I have a light grip, so I’m not going to be confused with [powerhouse drummers] Cozy Powell or John Bonham. I still have my hearing.” It’s easy to make too much noise on the drum kit. It’s really hard to make much less. Playing fast and light takes real skill Prog rock’s efforts to elevate rock to the level of classical music and jazz brought about a backlash in Britain in the late 1970s. It was lampooned as self-indulgent and elitist, the work of cosseted boys from private schools. Bruford is engaging and drily humorous, with a very English tone of self-deprecation, but he used to be capable of magnificently lofty remarks as well. In 1976, he told the readers of the music weekly Sounds that playing on a rhythmically simple Roy Harper song was “like asking Nureyev to dance a waltz”. “Did I say that?” he says, spluttering through a mouthful of almond croissant. “That’s disgraceful. It’s a prime example of the insufferable arrogance of a young drummer. I was thoroughly obnoxious in my mid-twenties. Phenomenally ambitious and very arrogant. It was a big problem, and then I got better at that — I hope,” he adds, laughing. When Bruford listens to the four decades of work collected on the box-set, he hears himself improving as a musician. “Much more subtle, much more able to imply rather than shout. It’s very easy to make too much noise on the drum kit. It’s really hard to make much less. Playing fast and light takes real skill.”

The line-up of prog-rock group Yes, photographed in London in 1969 (from left to right): Chris Squire, Tony Kaye, Bill Bruford, Peter Banks and Jon Anderson © David Gahr/Getty

There was widespread bewilderment when he left Yes in 1972 at the moment of their biggest commercial breakthrough with the album Close to the Edge. But Bruford wanted musical improvement, not fame. His membership of King Crimson matched him with a kindred spirit, the band’s guitarist leader Robert Fripp. They had a “hair-raising sound”, as he puts it, an anything-goes ethos demanding both self-discipline and an appetite for risk. Fripp once likened Bruford’s playing to “a flying brick wall”. “You either go with it or duck,” the drummer explains. He no longer performs, having retired from the stage and studio in 2009. “You have to move so fast,” he explains. “Suddenly there’s hip-hop. How did that get there and how can I contribute to it? How can the Billness get into this? Eventually, around the age of 60, I couldn’t hear in my ears any more how I could contribute.”

Having abandoned an economics degree to take up drumming with Yes in 1968, he returned to university to do a PhD about creativity and drumming, gaining his doctorate in 2016. “I still love drums with a passion,” he says. He’s tempted to set up his kit again, but only for private use at home. “I feel enormously privileged,” he says, looking back at 40 years of work. “I’ve never really played anything I didn’t want to play. You say that to classical musicians and they think you’re out of your mind. ‘How is that possible? We grind away on symphonies we’ve been playing for years. We’re told where to go and what to do.’ I feel like at the end of an era really — being able to play exactly what I liked, wherever and with whom I wanted.”

'Bill Bruford: Making a Song and Dance’ is out on April 29 on BMG Follow @ftweekend on Twitter 

For the full article read here

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