Strike That Chord
He was once the driving force behind Genesis, Yes and King Crimson, but now this brilliant percussionist has turned his attention to jazz - and new technology. Tim Goodyer talks to him.
Bill Bruford, once one of progressive rock's greatest drummers, is now in the vanguard of a new wave of jazz with his ensemble, Earthworks. Characteristically, he's in the vanguard of using new percussion technology, too.
LONG BEFORE THE record shop became the well-organised affair we're familiar with today, it was often a dingy, rambling Aladdin's cave full of the sorts of people your mother warned you about. Looking through records, or "browsing", was an art in its own right and, like any art, it had its own customs and traditions. Confidently skipping over desirable albums indicated you already had them; pausing on anything iffy told the world you did not (yet) know what you were doing; and well-thumbed sleeves meant secondhand or unsaleable stock - not to be confused. The record sleeves told their own story: those bearing an unintelligible logo supposedly needed no introduction, long lists of equipment meant techno-rock, and endless notes explaining the intricacies of the music meant jazz.
Bill Bruford, previously drummer with Yes, Genesis and King Crimson to name but a few, has a new band. Their name is Earthworks and the sleeve of their album - called simply Earthworks — is covered with intriguing sleevenotes documenting the music and its players.
"Yes, it's jazz", says Bruford with a smile. "I always thought sleevenotes were wonderful. I didn't mind being told the tune was in 5/4 or that the bridge was modulated to another key, I was fascinated by it."
Alongside Bruford, Earthworks consists of Django Bates on keyboards, trumpet and tenor horn, Iain Ballamy on assorted saxophones and Mick Hutton on double bass, a line-up Bruford describes as "a pretty fair English group". The arrangement is Bruford's introduction to the activities of a new breed of young British jazz musicians. Substitute Loose Tubes drummer Steve Arguelles for Bruford and you have the Iain Ballamy Quartet; alternatively, Bates and Arguelles are active as Human Chain. Bates and Ballamy are also regular Tubes members, and it was the musical empathy they share there that first brought them to Bruford's attention.
"They have an arrangement that makes the pair of them greater than the sum of their parts", he explains. "Mick, on the other hand, is the quiet guy of the group who, when all the talking's stopped, is always right on the button.
"I think they may have looked at me with some doubt to start with, but when you're working with very good musicians, you don't have to tell them too much. I just said: 'I'm going to play this, you play what you like'."
The Earthworks sleevenotes also denounce the elitist attitudes often associated with jazz, particularly since its recent resurgence in popularity.
"Far be it from me to pronounce on the state of jazz, but I think things have changed a bit since the Tubes and their fraternity appeared. It used to be black, then it got whitish, as long as it was American, now it can be anything - white Norwegian, for example, like Jan Garbarek. We think it can be white and British.
"Earthworks has the spirit of jazz. At times it gets blurred of course, but you can sense that when the musicians don't play the same thing twice, they're playing jazz.
"It does require dexterity though: you cannot just become a jazz player because it's the flavour of the month. People say if musicians play well they're showing off their technical dexterity. Well, it's not just technical dexterity, but there is an element where you can use the dexterity of musicians creatively. You don't get bogged down with all this 'should the bass player play an F or an F# here?' It's performance music, and the performance will be different every night.
"You get the rough with the smooth. Sometimes it's not so good because the musicians are bored to tears, and other times it's absolutely great. As somebody that's spent some time playing shows where it's note-for-note every night, I welcome that. I was talking to someone who did 232 dates with Dire Straits, which is very simple music anyway, and he said after 50 gigs he was just looking at his hands. Those people are suffering, they're asleep on stage. Hopefully when Earthworks play, nobody's asleep.
"It's been fine so far except that we haven't done quite as much work as I'd have liked. That's partly because we're under rock management and they don't really know you exist without an LP. You might think people like me make LPs automatically, but I have to form a group like anyone else. I have to play in Japan, then in England so the management can see we can play and that we're reasonable guys. Then you have to do a demo to get a record deal.
"Believe me, things don't get any easier even when you've been around 20 years. But that's OK: if the music's good it'll find a deal and if it's not, it won't."
AND GOOD IT IS. Anyone who found Bruford's recent liaison with Patrick Moraz just a little on the obscure side will welcome the honesty of Earthworks. There's jazz in abundance, tempered by the odd rock outburst, and only occasionally is the music guilty of the frivolousness that plagued jazz-rock in its heyday. But more than anything else, you can feel there's something going on when Earthworks are playing.
"There's a honeymoon period that all groups go through", Bruford explains, with some enthusiasm. "It's when the people on the stage don't quite know what they're doing, when they don't know how it's going to come out. It's like a story book where you don't really want to know the ending too soon. It's an attitude, and all the people in Earthworks share that attitude."
Unfortunately, no amount of enthusiasm will sell records. Bruford the recording artist falls uncomfortably between the categories of old rocker, obscure jazz musician and technological innovator. And given that, who the hell is going to buy his records?
"Traditionally the singer is the easiest person to listen to, and next down is the alto saxophone. We don't have a singer, but we do have a guy who sings on a sax."
"You overhear these marketing conversations about which age group is going to buy what, and the reason they don't allow musicians in on them is because they're brutal. It has you guys out as idiots. We would like to treat you as adults, it's commonsense. If I treat you as a grown-up, the music will have more meaning to you whether you know there's a flattened fifth in the scale or not."
Flattened fifths or no flattened fifths, a bigger obstacle to Earthworks' marketability is the absence of a singer from the line-up.
"I'm a firm believer that it really isn't such a problem to listen to music without singing on it", says Bruford. "That has all been an artificial constriction of the record industry: it's either got a singer on it, in which case it's something, or else it hasn't and it's nothing. This whole New Age confusion, which is such a lamentable affair, has good sides and bad sides. Perhaps one of the good sides is that people now seem to be able to listen to music without singing.
"Traditionally the singer is the easiest person to listen to, and next down is the alto saxophone, which is a beautiful instrument. We don't have a singer per se, but we do have a guy who sings on a sax. I think our stuff is friendly and exciting. I don't think it sounds as if there's some game going on that's designed to exclude the listener. There are no games going on that you can't understand, and I don't want to make the kind of music where there are.
"If you play music without a singer, the income to the group is that much smaller, which means that everything is that much tougher. No excuses, but you cannot have the rehearsal time and so on that you'd like. Now, that doesn't bother me because I'm sure the energy of a gig makes up for those things.
"For Christ's sake, this album was recorded in the time it took King Crimson to set up their gear. If you're interested in that kind of thing, you can hear the phone ring when the saxophone player is soloing and you can hear bass drum mics distorting, but that all comes with the music. Flaws always used to come with the music but these days standards are very high and, if it gets too scuzzy, people start to complain. If the John Coltrane Quartet recorded A Love Supreme and handed it in as a finished album now, it'd probably be slung out by the record company.
"I have always done my own marketing, in the sense that I would ask myself: 'Would I pay my own admission to an Earthworks concert and divert £6 for their album?' Well, the answer is yes in both cases, and I don't wish to be associated with any music where that wouldn't be the case."
AS WELL AS being recognised as a drummer of considerable talent, Bill Bruford has conducted a longstanding love affair with percussive electronics. Like many drummers, he tried the Simmons SDS5 when it was first introduced and, also like many drummers, he gave up on it.
"When I left electronic instruments in about '84, I'd been struggling with stuff that was brutal to play, and I thought: 'To hell with this. I'll just get back to acoustics again and try to figure out what that's all about.'
"Two years later MIDI had come to drummers and things were getting much better. In the meantime my writing had stultified. I needed to write but I couldn't figure out on what instrument. The electronic set gave me something to write about.
"Now I feel like a musician first and a drummer second. I'm not sure I'm much of a drummer any more. I don't really know what I am; I suppose I'm a kind of electronics character. I do apply a percussive technique but I'm beginning to feel anyone in the band could probably do that.
"It doesn't matter to me that I'm a drummer; I've only a limited interest in five-stroke rolls. They're useful tools, but then so are a lot of other things. You can play your chords in five-stroke rolls, and therein lies a new sound. What becomes of interest is the context in which things are used. I can play a synthesiser from a drum set entirely unlike a keyboard player would play it from the keyboard.
"A lot of what's happened to me recently has been influenced by Dave Simmons. He keeps producing these instruments that need playing. It's like having my instrument taken away and being given a new one. I respect Dave very much; I think he's a real jazz musician now, a real busker. He's causing all kinds of mayhem and confusion with instrumentation, which is the purpose of jazz, so I like that. I can't possibly not play his gear - it's too challenging. I got hooked on a rig of his which allowed a drummer to play chords and pitched notes. That particular device is all over this album...
"I have no general rules: what happens is I find a patch and a series of pitches or chords that sound good and I make a tune. That tune may end up as strong as the sax melody, which will then probably come as an obligato to it.
"A lot of what's happened to me recently has been influenced by Dave Simmons... He's causing all kinds of mayhem with instrumentation, which is the purpose of jazz."
"Funnily enough, sometimes I think you miss the drum set. There am I, drumming away like crazy, and you're not hearing a drummer in the conventional sense, you're hearing some flutes or some scuzzy-sounding bent timpani. So you have the phenomenon of the drummer who doesn't sound like a drummer. I've had to re-voice things so that occasionally, a beat appears as well. That means I'm part-rigged for pitches and part-rigged for drum sounds. It's a bit of a maze."
On a purely technical level, Bruford's maze currently involves a Simmons SDS7/MTM rig. There's a total of 11 pads, one of which is stereo and four of which are routed directly to the SDS7 brain. The MTM takes care of the eight remaining channels, and allows a Yamaha DX21 synthesiser to be triggered from the drum pads.
"My chords and pitches come from the MTM pads, and the others are additional sounds. That creates a fair range - you could even argue too great, because people like to have a reference for sounds."
Bruford claims the DX21 sounds "like junk" when played manually from a keyboard, yet comes into its own when fired off the pads.
"I got very lost with velocity-sensitivity", he admits. "Firing it so the timbre will change with the strength of the stroke is essential to drumming. I think you need a second sense for figuring out what's useful in sonic terms.
"I can't hear anything sounding good until I've played it with another person. I can understand when you've got some horrible frequencies present in a sound that make it unpleasant, but then I can find a use for all kinds of sounds. One of the nicest things is to provide rapid bursts of sound with ear-grabbing variation. If you've got 12 notes played very quickly, you try to select 12 different sources so the contour of the sound is exciting. My kit is set up to have unbelievable extremes of sound, so a rapid flurry produces the oddest combinations. At times I've felt it's suicide, it's absurd. Then, just when you're about to give up, you get the most glorious spray of sound.
"I must admit I haven't found this easy work, but it makes sense for the future and it is terrifically exciting.
"You know, I don't know why we expect to be able to sort new technology and new techniques out so quickly. Maybe it's the result of a marketing attitude: 'Here's your DX7, hey, plug it in and away you go'. You can do that, but there's this other depth in editing which very few people seem to be interested in at all. And on top of that, there are even more confines in that the record industry will only accept certain parameters of sound.
"Something that irritates me is the attitude of 'Oh, you play electronic drums, they're machines aren't they?' There's a sense of pressing a button and the damn thing starts. Well, I'm here to tell you it's done by flesh and blood. You have to strike the thing to make it sound and the harder you strike it, the more the sound changes, and that's important."
BUT, ACCORDING TO Bruford, it's not only the attitudes of outsiders that are making the would-be electronic drummer's life a misery.
"Watching some acoustic players moving towards electronics is painful. I was an acoustic player and I moved slowly, but I've got there. Keyboard players would insist on trying to play piano on a synthesiser. I never understood why, because it's a completely different instrument. And there are drummers struggling to make an electronic drum set sound like an acoustic set, and it doesn't and it never will. Instead of wasting all that effort, they should start doing something interesting with it. I look out there and it's not nice for drummers right now, but they've only got themselves to blame."
Enough, though, of where technology may or may not be taking drummers in the future. Let's get back to this drummer in particular. Where will new technology take Bill Bruford next?
"The Simmons SDX, I think, is going to be a beast of an instrument. It's not fully fired up yet, but I'd like to take one of those onboard in summer. Then I'll probably have to disappear for another three or four months while I get it figured out.
"After that I think my next direction will be sampling. I know drummers are late on this: keyboard players, as usual, are way down the line from us. I imagine producing sampled sounds and playing them will be ultimately wonderful. Playing DX pitches and chords is purely an interim phase, although this album is so dependent upon them that I couldn't really play it on any other instrument; 'Bridge of Inhibition' cannot be played on any other drum set.
"Eventually, I would like to play a drum set where the drummer's skill is judged as much by his use of timbre as his five-stroke roll. I think somewhere there's an ability to have the five-stroke roll and improvising sense plus, say, knowledge of sampling."
An ambitious manifesto, that. But then, ambition is something this particular musician has never lacked.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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