Bruford In Crimson
U.K.'s top drummer on skins v. synths
Bill Bruford talks to Tony Bacon
Up a few storeys in a King's Road house is the EG Records reception area. Bill Bruford collects his mail, an envelope with PAISTE stamped all over it. 'Being a drummer is a bit like being a doctor — you're always getting sent the latest information about the latest drugs,' he grins, ripping open the envelope. A dozen stickers and a drum key fall out. Mr. Bruford has evidently seen a lot of drum manufacturers' stickers in his time.
But on to the more pressing matters, and up, or rather along, to a quiet cupboard in the maze-like EG building to continue the chat. Bill had mentioned to me that he's doing a spot of teaching near where he lives, though he stresses that he's got more than enough pupils at the moment, and can't teach any more than he already does. One success is Steve White, a pupil who has won a scholarship, via Bill, to PIT in California. Despite this, Bill wonders aloud whether he's teaching rock/pop drummers a redundant job, what with all the mechanised rhythm alternatives in such preponderance today. He's faced by pupils and others asking such rhetorical questions as, 'What can I do? I can't play like "that machine".'
Bill explains, 'Trends are coming from producers in this area, I think they're dictating quite a lot of drum trends through the imaginative use of sound. It's quite arguable that drummers should dictate their own trends: they're being their own worst enemies by keeping their silly heads in their silly magazines and still talking endlessly about cymbals and 9-ply maple and other stuff that nobody else is interested in at all. They've been so bothered with all that, they haven't actually thought about the drumming from anybody else's point of view. So all you've got now is a machine so that producers can do the job, because they can hear what the drummer could be doing to interest the other musicians and, in turn, the listener.'
Drummers like Bruford counter this mechanised march thanks to their sheer ability, and their injection of human skills into what could otherwise be a mundane rhythm-keeping activity. Bill points out that machines have been around for ages, and they're often useful and inspiring. And anyway, it would be difficult to imagine a drummer as inventive and dexterous as Bruford feeling at all threatened by a mathematically-based machine. After all, there are still plenty of things that drummers do which machines will never get together properly. 'Drummers can only do these things that machines can't do in certain types of music,' Bill is quick to mention, and that's not currently popular. 'Pop is too one-dimensional, and the rhythm required from it too straight, too strict, to require the services of a living, breathing drummer, of somebody who can actually anticipate, hold back, exert tension and release it for you, all in the space of eight bars.
'That actually is the province of the Tony Williamses of this world, people like that, the terrific, erratic humans who are wonderful, are prone to making mistakes, and who you can see are on the line, who are grasping for something, and who are always making daredevil leaps. Sometimes they cock it up, and sometimes they don't.'
"POP IS TOO ONE-DIMENSIONAL, AND THE RHYTHM REQUIRED FROM IT TOO STRAIGHT... "
He cites Neurotica on King Crimson's most recent LP, Beat, as an example of what is essentially a solo drummer supported by a guitar group — the exciting Bruford balancing along this very same line, stretching the rhythms savaging the beat, and forcing the limbs to do things not quite usual. The art, in fact, of the talented drummer. 'I've always looked at rock music hopefully from a complete musicians' point of view, rather than just a drummer.'
For Bill, this wider definition includes delving into keyboards, mainly through the good offices of Sequential Circuits' omnipresent Prophet-5. And while these melodic abilities on keyboard have aided his desire for musical completeness, he admits to still finding it hard to write for King Crimson who are, after all, a guitar group. 'Fripp and Belew... if you write them an E major chord, anything could come out, anything remotely resembling E major — it probably won't even remotely resemble it. It's very hard to know how to communicate in a band like that where the individuals are competent enough to produce their own kinds of sounds, it's very hard to write for a band like that. I don't play guitar really, and I don't really know what's available — if the composer doesn't know the instrument he's working for he can't compose for it. And how can you work for Belew who's all (makes indescribable Belew guitar noise)... it's all flak! But on the other hand there are other songs and other projects I've got fingers in, as it were, where the situation is different and you write accordingly for it.'
One way that Bruford has found of interesting other group members in drum-sourced sounds is by using his Simmons electronic drums pitched, and thereby throwing at players what amounts to simple melodic lines. This happened on Waiting Man from Beat. Bill was sitting around with the Simmons, idly plonking out a neat up-and-down figure on the four pads, and everyone suddenly became interested.
"...I'VE NOW GOT THAT FACILITY PUT INTO A FOOTSWITCH SO THAT YOU CAN CLICK AND PROGRAMS SHIFT AUTOMATICALLY."
'Usually, when a drummer plays they all leave the room. But if you play a log drum or something, a drum with rhythm and melody to it, they all say, "Oh, what can I play on that?" You're in business — and you don't have to sell them the idea, they sell it to themselves. So right away we gave that to (Tony Levin's) Stick to start the tune, and then the drums come in and make a harmony to that, then it all changes key and everything. I really like the Simmons pitched like that — melody drums! Waiting Man was actually called Melody Drums before it got a proper title.'
With group members everywhere seemingly becoming less single-minded about instrument choice - Bruford's complete musician' approach — and with technology aiding Jacks and Jacquelines Of All Trades to this end, it's perhaps drummers, percussionists, bashers, call them what you will, who are going to have to move deepest into what have previously been seen as other players' territories. Two words provide the key to this change: 'tuned percussion'.
"THERE'S A TERRIFIC SATISFACTION IF YOU ENJOY THE SMELL AND FEEL OF REAL DRUMS..."
'Drummers are going to have to broaden themselves,' suggests Bill. 'In other words they're going to have to learn more about music beyond simple rhythm. It's now a luxury to specialise in rhythm. Imagine if I specialised in melody without any rhythm — that would be absurd. No other instrument specialises in melody or harmony to the exclusion of rhythm, for example. So, this drummer is going to have to learn about chords and harmony. I'm quite sure of this.' Pause while the collective percussive readership of Music UK picks itself up off the floor. 'Hopefully this drummer will then apply his sticking skills to melodic and harmonic patterns, as in any kind of tuned percussion. I think the character who can do that, as well as knowing a lot about sophisticated rhythm, will be a very useful character in recording studios in 1990.'
Of course, there will always be room for the specialist, for the masters of a particular instrument. 'There'll always be room for an amazing flute solo or the fastest violinist,' agrees Bill. 'There will always be those people. But the vast swamp will do everything, with the producer as likely to play the drums on the session as you are. And if the guitarist has a better keyboard idea than you, he might play it. So nobody can afford, or should be allowed, to be precious about their little demarcation lines. I've been trying to say that it's inevitable you're going to have to be a musician, and drummers too will I think, have to spend time on keyboards, and learn mallet sticking. That's a fairly useful combination because there are things you can do with patterns for stickings employing drum rudiments on melodic instruments that are not well covered yet. There's possibly a good avenue for exploration there.'
Vibes? Marimbas? What's Bill getting at?
'Well I'm not going to out-do a piano player on marimba or something, but I'm going to look for sticking patterns on it which would employ lots of flam figures and so on which would be quite unusual, and must be a drummer playing it. Obviously I'm not going to out-alto-saxophone an alto-saxophonist, I'm not going to ring the changes like an experienced jazz vibes player could, I'm going to give it a drummer's approach.'
"BRUFORD IS A SURVIVOR. HE SEES HIMSELF STILL PLAYING RHYTHMICALLY IN BANDS WHEN HE'S 60, WHICH WOULDN'T BE BAD GOING CONSIDERING THE RAISED EYEBROWS THAT OFTEN GREET ROCK DRUMMERS WHO HAPPEN TO BE OVER 30."
The Simmons kit can be ideal for working out and producing tuned percussion parts with a drummer's technique, as already mentioned in relation to Waiting Man. I asked Bill for some more details on this device, which many top drummers are now turning to for instant electronic drum sounds. He explains that the Simmons kit as a replacement for real drums has never appealed to him - which is much as you would guess from someone able to produce such a unique racket from wood, metal, plastic, and air.
The Simmons set-up used by Bill consists of four pressure-sensitive 'pads' linked to a control unit where you can modify the resulting sounds, after having plugged into an amp or the PA.
'You have two sticks, each moving between a pair of pads — the different combinations of stickings, flams, and stuff is the attraction. That's why, when they're used pitched, if you gave the same four notes to a piano player it wouldn't sound the same because he wouldn't or couldn't choose to put his fingers on the piano notes in quite the same way or order. So that's drumming with melody.
'On the control module, there's a factory (preset) sound, plus a further three sounds that you can program in yourself on each module, each triggered by one pad. Each module has control over the bend of the note, the decay of the note, the tone, the pitch, the relationship between "noise" and "drum" in the note itself, and a combination of all those so you can pick up some quite useful sounds. You can store and recall these sounds — so your toms can be pitched in a second, and then indefinite pitch the next, you can go between them which is useful.
In fact, to do so you have to take a hand off and press buttons, which is a shame. Recording Waiting Man we actually stopped the tape, re-tuned the drums, started it up again, stopped after that, next tonality, re-tune, start again... I've now got that facility put into a footswitch so that you can click and programs shift automatically.
'I took them to Japan (the Simmons drums) and the people from Tama were hovering like flies, peering at these things, taking pictures. And there was a definite feeling that they perceived this thing as being an early form of something that was shortly going to get better, and they would dive in at the right moment in about a year's time with the full weight of their research and development behind it. They thought they'd let this guy get on with it for a while... they were interested. I've played them a lot in the States too, and there's a lot of interest there. 'The Simmons pads aren't very pleasant to play as a surface, but it's all part of your inherent conservatism as a drummer. You have to battle on with these things. You don't really get any response at all from the Simmons pad, it's a bit like playing a table top. It can get very sharp on the wrists. There's a terrific satisfaction if you enjoy the smell and feel of real drums, the give of a drum, that's missing. I have to tell you, it ain't fun playing the Simmons kit as far as I'm concerned. It's a sound source that's creating sounds that I can use, and I'm finding it very useful. But I don't relish the thought, as I look at my black pads, of playing the things.
'But that's part of broadening your base, too, as a drummer. You must be prepared to strike anything. As I said, you can't be precious about just wanting to play a snare drum, a bass drum, and a cymbal. The music might not call for that.'
Bruford is a survivor. He sees himself still playing rhythmically in bands when he's 60, which wouldn't be bad going considering the raised eyebrows that often greet rock drummers who happen to be over 30. 'The average rock musician is not supposed to last. I'd like to disprove that.' I believe he will.