Tuesday 15 March 2011

Bill Bruford: Yes beyond and Before. December 2003

Bill Bruford launched two record imprints in the winter of 2003 (Summerfold Records and Winterfold records) Jon Kirkman was invited to Bill’s house to discuss the hopes and plans for these two new record companies and also the release of the latest Earthworks album. Random Acts Of Happiness. Having spoken about the current projects it was time to take a trip down memory lane as Jon Kirkman asked Bill about his time in Yes, King Crimson and the other bands he has been involved in such as Genesis, Gong and National Health.

Jon Kirkman Bill we’ve been talking about your current projects which is the launch of two label imprints, Suumerfold and Winterfold. Let’s have a look a little further back and go through the mists of time. Let’s go back to Yes. We were talking a little earlier about Yes seemingly having a second wind if you like, and doing very, very well at the moment. I remember thinking when I first got into Yes that they were an amazing band. How did it feel from a musician’s point of view to be in a band like Yes?

Bill Bruford Well, very exciting of course. I think we thought we were on to something. We felt we were as good as anybody around, we felt we had a really good approach to the music. Basically we started as a covers band and then we started to do “improve” the arrangements, that is by adding subsections and subsections to subsections and taking the music places where it wasn’t supposed to go and on the whole we thought we were pretty good and so did the record company and then absolutely nothing happened for about three years. But in those days you could probably make two or three albums before you were asked to leave the label so we inflicted a fairly punishing schedule on ourselves but on the whole it was just very, very exciting. Then somehow when the Yes album and Fragile were hits, it seemed the most normal and natural thing in the world.

JK I think I can remember reading somewhere that the initial premise was a Beach Boys harmony band with a great rhythm section.

BB Yes I think that would be fair to say, the Beach Boys were a huge influence as were the Fifth Dimension, another vocal group from the States. The idea that three guys could sing in harmony but also have playing ability would be great. It always seemed like vocal harmony groups like the Beach Boys always seemed to have such naff kind of drummers and rhythm section that could never do anything instrumentally whereas if you could combine the two you would have something.

JK Things moved pretty quickly for Yes. There were a certain amount of covers on the first two albums but the were quite unrecognisable and they turned into Yes songs. I suppose that must have been the initial plan, “Let’s do some covers, but let’s make them our own.”

BB Oh yeah, and that still remains the great pleasure in doing covers. That is one of the great things about covers. A good cover version already has its drawbridge down to the audience. They already know the song so they are ready for your hip treatment of it. Do you know what I mean? If you have a style, a great way to communicate your style right away to an audience is through something that both parties know which is a Beatle song that is why people’s songs were subjected to the most merciless covering. Of course everybody knew them and you could re-arrange them like Joe Cocker did for example and Yes did very fruitfully and that would indicate to the customer (and still does) what your group is all about.

JK Moving on from the fact that Yes covered songs. When they got into their original material, the material became very involved It wasn’t pop single material, although there was a huge audience out there that liked that kind of music but when you got to the stage of Close to the Edge where one side of an album was taken up by one track or be it various movements within that track rather like a piece of classical music, how did that come about? It seemed to me to happen in quite a short space of time, in two years or so.

BB Well a number of things pointed to it. You know they study this stuff at university now so you want me to turn into the college professor on this. A number of things were happening, one of which was stereo, one of which was the vinyl album which suddenly had twenty minutes a side which is a perfect kind of sonata form because you can go no further than that on one side but yet it is quite within grasp. It is something that was bound to come. I can remember Simon and Garfunkel had taken three months to make Bridge over Troubled Water and if they had taken three months then by golly Yes was going to take three and half months! Whatever, it was an arts explosion; everything was going forward at a furious rate. Whatever PA system Led Zeppelin had we wanted a bigger one. Whatever monitoring system Led Zeppelin had we wanted a better one. Whatever keyboard player we had, we wanted a better keyboard player and the musicians got swapped like football players. So when Rick Wakeman came on the scene Tony Kaye’s days were numbered. When Steve Howe appeared, Peter Banks days were numbered. So you see it was an arms race, an explosion fuelled by a record industry that was trebling in size per annum. I don’t even remember getting a record contract or ever signing one. There was always one there. It was inevitable that we would get a hit sooner or later. I didn’t even know what a hit was; I wasn’t even looking for one. So it was completely opposite to how it is now and I lecture at college level sometimes and it is astonishing to explain to young people that the music industry now is wholly unidentifiable or unrecognisable from the industry that I knew.

JK Let’s move to 1972. I have read things in magazines and the general consensus of opinion, certainly within the music business was “Bill Bruford has just sacrificed his career; he has left Yes and joined King Crimson”. I actually think that was the best move you could have made at the time.

BB It was the only move that made any sense to me. I was getting bored; I played with the same four guys for the four years that I had been a musician. I didn’t understand that you were supposed to stay with the same guys forever like Keith and Mick. Nobody told me you had to stay in the same band forever. That certainly didn’t sound like a good idea to me. How would I ever get any better as a player if I only ever heard myself in the same context? I didn’t understand that. That goes back to something I was saying earlier. If you bear in mind where I am coming from and what I am trying to do is to become a better musician, a better drummer. So moving from one group to King Crimson which was a much darker and a much fewer words, less discussion and more fascinating group was a completely natural step.

JK I wouldn’t necessarily say that King Crimson were a better band, they were definitely a different band but you certainly seemed a lot happier in King Crimson initially anyway than you were in the later days of Yes. Would I be right in assuming that?

BB I think so. I spent a lot of time screaming and shouting like people with too much coffee in them do. We were all young; we were all hot headed. It was like a hothouse atmosphere; people were selling records like no tomorrow. There didn’t seem to be an accountant on the premises. Everybody was fighting; everybody had a better idea than the other guy. It was a fast moving time, a very exciting time and I am not sure happiness was anything I was particularly after. I was just after getting better as a player.

JK The initial line up of King Crimson that you joined was a pretty unorthodox one. There was a percussionist Jamie Muir, how did you work with Jamie? Having seen some of the material that line up recorded; at times it seemed like chaos.

BB Well chaos in music is no bad thing. What you want to be more frightened of is endless repetition. Chaos is great; if you don’t know quite what is happening then you are probably in the right place because you have to think on your feet and come up with something and what you come up with might surprise yourself and the audience proving in fact that there is life in the group. What is difficult is endless repetition; the idea that you go round and round the world playing Nights In White Satin until you become old and grey is not for me. So Jamie was a breath of fresh air, a wonderful man, and a highly intelligent man who taught me a ton about drumming very quickly and in no uncertain terms. Bear in mind that I was the precocious young whiz kid of the day and Muir told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t think I was and that I had a lot to learn in music and he was absolutely right. So working with him was a music lesson and I always try to work with musicians with whom my association with them will always be a music lesson.

JK That particular line up of King Crimson didn’t last very long and again for me it seemed that King Crimson as a band didn’t last very much longer. No sooner had you brought out, one of my favourite King Crimson albums and a lot of people’s favourite with Red Robert Fripp Pulled the Plug and folded the band. Did that disappoint you?

BB Again, disappointment like happiness wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. I have got a terribly thick skin and it didn’t faze me much other than the fact that I didn’t have a job. It fazed me a little bit on that level. I think I had already begun to see life the way Robert saw it that these groups were like a tool in the garden shed, up on the shelf. You took the tool down when you saw there was a job to do. When there wasn’t a job to do you put the tools back. I rather liked the view of King Crimson like that. King Crimson was the only band I can think of in the world really that started again in 1980 as a headline group without playing a single composition from its famous repertoire of the seventies. It was a different organisation and the idea that your organisation King Crimson could come with a completely different instrumental line up and a completely different repertoire was revolutionary in the day. It is still revolutionary now. I don’t think people will do that but I thought that was a really nice idea and I began to get used to the idea that Robert wouldn’t use the group full time. Although these were unorthodox ideas Robert is a highly intelligent man with many unorthodox ideas and it’s going to be a bumpy ride but nobody in this business said it was going to be easy.

JK When King Crimson reformed; I think it was originally going to be called Discipline. Was one of the things that attracted you to playing with Robert again was that it wasn’t going to be just a rehash which would have been a very easy move to reform King Crimson and play some of the older material alongside some of the new material. But he chose the more difficult route and succeeded in many ways.

BB Almost certainly he succeeded. I think the Discipline album of 1980 was one of my favourites. What was there not to like? There was electronic drums, we were all being encouraged to play the latest technology of the day; there was the extraordinary ten string stick bass that Tony Levin played and still plays. There was Adrian Belew straight from Talking Heads, there were Roland guitar synthesizers; this was heaven. I mean how could you not enjoy a group who could make something interesting with those people? If you couldn’t make a good record with those guys then you could never make a good record. Now we had American funk in the band. We had the two Brits arguing away with their brainpower; it was great.

JK Of course in between the two bouts of King Crimson there were a few bands you were involved in, some a lot of people would say they would expect you to play with, Genesis is one. I would say that National Health would definitely be a band you would be interested in but I was very surprised when you played with Gong for a while.

BB Well I think I was too. I probably played with the first guy who rang up on my phone because I had not been unemployed before and I didn’t know how that worked and I think Gong were the first guys who rang up. It is important just to be able to go out I think and absorb somebody else’s style. This is good discipline as a musician; absorb somebody else’s style in 24 hours flat, learn the music, use it, embroider it, make it better and move on. I think that is a technique that musicians need to know how to do; to put your entire self aside and absorb what the band is doing like a classic sideman does. I had never done that before so I enjoyed doing that. Yes there were several years there from ’74 to ’77 where I was learning what went on in groups, what went on in Genesis, what went on in National Health. Did they read music? Yes, they did read music; that was a shock because my reading wasn’t up to much. What was it like in an Anglo French group? What was it like with Roy Harper? There were a number of experiences to be had.

JK What would you say would be the overriding goal for you as a musician because you do move between bands and also between types of music, obviously there is the love of jazz, but you seem to do a project and then move on and you always put your heart and soul into it as a musician should be. How do you perceive yourself as a musician?

BB The whole sticky mess makes sense if you try to view it from the other side of my spectacles, from my head as it were and I go back to something I may have said earlier which was about contributing. I think the one thing I want to do is contribute; I don’t want to be a waste of space. I want you to pay for something and get something in turn. I want to contribute. What I want to contribute on is my instruments. I dread irrelevance; I dread boredom. I chase and pursue relevance. The worse thing a musician can be hit with is irrelevance, to be playing away and frankly nobody cares. I mean that is a problem, you have got a problem. So contribution is something I would like to feel- and it is incredibly arrogant –but I would like to feel that forty years after I began that drumming wouldn’t be exactly the same as it was when I began and that my records would have made one iota’s difference in the course of what happens on my instruments. That is why I am a musician; that is why I go to jazz. Why? Because that is where drumming happens. That is why I prefer to play real time instead of computer time/virtual recording. That’s why I go from one group to the next group because it is my obligation as I see it to play to the highest of my sensibilities in as much time as possible. That is what you are paying me to do. If I am not going to do that job then I might as well hang up. So if you view it from that sense, the reason I move from group to group is because it is my obligation to do so. I know I can do better.

JK Well in closing then, I know it probably sounds like a cliché particularly when I put it to a drummer, the one thing we will never see is Bill Bruford marking time.

BB (laughs) That is a good line. I am not very good at marking time. I kind of assume you keep your own time. I would like to keep moving forward and I think if you tire or you run out of ideas, there’s nothing wrong with that, you just move to the side for a bit and wait and put yourself in exciting and interesting places with exciting and interesting musicians like Tim Garland and Steve Hamilton, Mark Hodgeson, like Tony Levin, like Robert Fripp, like anyone of these hundreds of people and trust them and work with them and the future will present itself.

© Jon Kirkman Rockahead/CRR 2003 and 2011.

Bill Bruford's Autobiography Bill Bruford: The Autobiography can be ordered from Amazon via Jawbone Press


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