An Interview With Bill Bruford

Bill Bruford is arguably one of the most versatile drummers in the business. In addition to providing the pounding beat behind legendary progressive rock acts like Yes, King Crimson, UK, and even Genesis on their 1976 tour, he has established himself as an equally well respected jazz drummer and percussionist both with his band Earthworks and through various other collaborations with an array of talented jazz musicians across the globe.

On March 23, 2005, Bill sat down with World of Genesis.com's Dave Negrin to talk about his newly remastered back catalog, his current projects, and his long and impressive career in music. 


WOG: By Genesis’ 1976 Trick of The Tail tour, Steve Hackett had already done his first solo album, Voyage of The Acolyte, and he was starting to get discouraged with the band. As someone behind the scenes on that tour, was his dissatisfaction apparent? Or, did it seem like he was ready to make a change?

BB: A little bit, but you must remember that I was a guest in someone else’s house. So, I didn’t really pick up on this kind of stuff.

WOG: Phil Collins obviously achieved a great deal of success both with Genesis and as a solo artist. Back in the mid ‘70s, did he strike you as someone who was concerned with chart positions or commercial success?

World of Genesis: Do you mind if I record this?

Bill Bruford: No, I’d infinitely prefer you to record it. Anything with a notebook, paper and a pencil is a pain in the ass! (laughs). Where are you calling from?

WOG: I’m calling from the
United States

BB: Well, I know that!

WOG: …Just outside the Philadelphia and New York area in New Jersey.

BB: Oh, ok.

WOG: I understand that you met pianist Michiel Bortslap at the Nijmegen Jazz Festival in Holland in 2002. How did that chance meeting evolve into the Every Step A Dance, Every Word A Song album?

BB: Well, there is not much chance involved in these things. I was called by a Dutch TV producer, as is the thing, and he had a bill filled at the
Nijmegen 18th Annual Music Festival, and his job was to put interesting people together who might not have thought of playing together. That happens frequently in the jazz world, you know? He has this kind of star Dutch pianist Michiel Bortslap, and he thought that we would get on together as doing a kind of duo. They flew to London and we met at Heathrow, like people do, and we took it from there. We did a few gigs and liked what we did a lot. There were some recordings around and next thing you know, you have a CD and a DVD. Easy.
BB: No. A struck me as a good drummer and singer. He was certainly driven in the sense that he wanted Genesis to be a success. I don’t recall how successful they were at the time of Trick of The Tail or if they got on the charts. I honestly can’t remember, and it certainly wasn’t my concern, really. I was just concerned with doing a good job on drums as a kind of ‘hired gun’ as you say. 

He’s overly sensitive to criticism, I think. He seems to be overly concerned
ab out what the Gardening Correspondent on the New Jersey Gazette thinks. 

WOG: You’ve had a long standing relationship with Tony Levin on a number of projects. What is it
about your relationship as a rhythm section that works for you?

BB: I’m not so sure it’s anything about a rhythm section so much as just another guy I really like. We get on very well. His sense of humor is fantastic! He’s a great photographer. He’s a lovely guy that you want to have around in a band. 

A lot of these things have to do with personalities and people and how well they get on and communication skills and things. People who are talented, easy-going and a breeze to work with are, of course, in much demand.

WOG: How did the Bruford Levin Upper Extremities project come

BB: It was Tony’s suggestion. I was up in Woodstock cutting an album, my first after a while actually. It was a jazz album with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez.

Around that time, Tony said, “We’ll since you’re here, and since we’re in the studio, and since you have your drums set up and mic’ed, why don’t we cut a record at the same time?” So, I said, “Yes.” …and that sounded like a great idea six months before. When we got to it, I was exhausted after the sessions. I had to cut a whole album in a week. All fresh material, unrehearsed… which involved a lot of late nights with Towner and Gomez (laughs). Also, I didn’t have an idea left in my brain after that particular record. It was just draining! So, I remember sitting on the drum stool in the first day of what was to become
Upper Extremities thinking, “Oh my word, what are we going to play now?!” …but it was fun.

WOG: Have you thought of incorporating Michiel into a future Earthworks project?

BB: No. Earthworks has its own pianist, Gwilym Simcock, a young British guy who is very good. I think… Well, one thing at a time, my friend. We can only go so fast!

WOG: I know that a number of albums in your back catalog have recently been remastered with newly added bonus tracks. Were you directly involved with that remastering process?

BB: Oh,
absolutely! I’m responsible… The buck stops here!

WOG: (laughs) Are the bonus tracks all period material from the original sessions for those albums and how did you go
ab out selecting which added songs would be included in these reissued CDs?

"Ol' Blue Eyes" and Bill Bruford in 1976

BB: The bonus tracks are period material, certainly. They are effectively what you would call bootleg tracks from the day. Of course, being from the late ‘70s, these are not hi-fi. They are essentially low-fi tracks, but then, so was so much of my jazz listening when I was a kid. I was always listening to great albums by Rollins or Coltrane or Miles Davis or something in some dodgy club where you can never hear the bass anyway let alone the piano player.

WOG: Your last tenure with King Crimson was with the double trio for the Thrak album. It was mentioned elsewhere that you went back in the studio after Thrak to record a follow-up album. After those 1997 rehearsal sessions of the next album in Nashville, Tennessee, what happened to the double trio concept?


King Crimson circa 1973 (L to R): John Wetton,
David Cross, Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford

BB: Well, I think it sank fabulously without a trace. There were just a few bubbles left on the surface, and the almighty swallowed it up. It was difficult period certainly for both me and Robert (Fripp). I couldn’t see the purpose in these rehearsals at all, which were getting very expensive. We didn’t seem to be going anywhere with it. I wanted to move forward, and I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t be going forward. Robert, obviously, wasn’t happy with the music either. There was just an excruciatingly awful ten days or so of rehearsals. At the end of which, I said, “Well, I’ve had enough! I can’t contribute here at all.” The music was going nowhere, I had nothing to say about it, and nothing to contribute. So, it was best that I then proceeded with a full-time jazz career.

WOG: Are there new liner notes, enhanced packaging, or other added material with these new remasters?

BB: Somewhat. There is the occasional photograph, but if you’re asking if I did a Robert Fripp with volumes of material, volumes of critical output, and volumes of press releases… No.

WOG: You were just here in
New York in December 2004. Do you think you’ll be back on tour in North America in 2005?

BB: No. No,
North America dates for 2005. America is becoming hard to work in. You may have noticed that you put the walls up, you guys. So, it is increasingly hard to get work visas.

WOG: Earthworks has become your primary project these days, yet you still seem to dabble in the occasional progressive rock project. If you do, in fact, feel that jazz is your primary interest at this stage of your career, what seems to keep drawing you back to your progressive rock roots from time to time?

BB: Well, nothing musical at all. Usually, it is some who has asked me very nicely and won’t go away.

WOG: What is it
about jazz that gives you a greater sense of satisfaction than you are able to get from rock music?

BB: Do you know anything about jazz, Dave?

WOG: A little bit, yes.

BB: Well, there are big differences. Once is improvisational and the other is essentially repetitive. I think there you have it. I can’t go around the world repeating things endlessly, which is the nature of progressive rock.

Bruford Live In Concert in 1989 with 
Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe

WOG: So, your quitting King Crimson is what made the double trio dissolve?

BB: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know what happened after I walked away, but I think they proceeded as a five piece for a while, didn’t they? I’m not sure.

WOG: Both on the King Crimson double trio project and on the Yes Union tour, it seems like you enjoyed playing different time signatures while other drummers play more standard time. What is it
about odd time signatures that appeals to you?

BB: Well, all sorts of rhythm and drumming appeals to me. Even as a kid, I seem to remember finding it easy to play something interesting in an odd time signature rather than 4/4 (standard time). Everybody seemed to be able to do fabulous stuff in 4/4, and I couldn’t think of what I could add that was interesting in that department. So, I just found odd meters very uncovered territory in the mid ‘60s, late ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

Not many people were playing in odd meters. The jazz guys were, like Dave Brubeck’s famous quartet of the mid ‘60s used a lot of time signatures. There was a very influential record called
Time Further Out featuring Joe Morello on drums. I was intrigued by this, and I thought I could live and move and have my being in odd time signatures. So, slowly it filtered into Yes and then a lot into King Crimson …and certainly a lot into Earthworks now.

WOG: There was a rumor that you had recorded a new UK album a few years ago with the original line-up. If that is true, what happened to the album?

BB: No, it's fabulously untrue. Eddie Jobson kept threatening to do something or other, but that was years back. Eddie is always good for getting in touch with him and asking him what the latest thing is about UK. I was thrown out of UK essentially, so I have no rights. I have no control over the thing whatsoever.

WOG: So there was no proposition to reform?

BB: Oh, there’s a proposition every week!

WOG: (laughs) How were you selected to tour with Genesis in 1976?

BB: Well… it’s a story much told, but I’ll tell it again. Phil Collins and I were working together in Brand X. I was playing percussion to his drum set. We were doing a few English dates in that format. 

He was explaining this problem he had that Gabriel was leaving. He had auditioned tons of singers, and I remember him saying that he was better than any of the people he was auditioning. I think I vaguely remember saying, “Why do you stand up front and sing, and I’ll cover for you on the drums? Then, you know it won’t fall apart.” Which is, of course, a singer’s nightmare... that the music will fall apart behind him. He seemed to think that was ok. I said, “I’ll do it for a bit until you get comfort
able and then you can get someone else.”

Yes promo photo circa 1969 (L to R): Peter Banks, Bill Bruford, Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, and Tony Kaye

WOG: In the March 2005 issue of Bass Guitar Magazine, Chris Squire is quoted as saying that odd time signatures were prevalent in much of Yes’ early work largely due to your influence but that some of the band’s more important work was done in 4/4. How do you feel about that statement given the popularity of Yes albums like Close to The Edge which include some incredibly popular songs with odd time signatures?

BB: Oh, I feel that is probably
right. I don’t feel anything about that statement. I’m sure that’s right. Mostly, 4/4 is a much more popular meter.

WOG: What were the circumstances that made the second Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe album evolve into the Yes Union project?

BB: Well, they were pretty poor circumstances. You have to go back a little bit. The first Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe album was quite good, actually. I thought it was going to be a Jon Anderson solo record, but it turned into this newish kind of thing. 

WOG: So, in your mind, the gig with Genesis was never a long-term commitment?

BB: No, not at all. I had a lot of other plans that I put on hold for that particular year.

WOG: On your website, it says that during your brief stint in Genesis that you weren’t used to working as a sort of hired gun and that you “behaved badly, sniped critically and impotently from the side lines.” Can you
elaborate on that comment?

BB: No, I don’t think so. I think that speaks very eloquently.

WOG: Phil had mentioned himself in the documentary Phil Collins: A Life Less Ordinary that he would listen to Genesis’ board tapes after the gigs and slip notes under the hotel doors of his band mates to point out potential areas of improvement from the night’s performance. Did he offer that kind of constructive criticism to you? If so, as a successful drummer in your own right, how did you take that criticism?

BB: No, he didn’t offer those criticisms.  I think he had his hands full trying to be the singer. He wasn’t fussed
about what was going on particularly in the back. He seemed just very concerned with singing and just let me get on with it. So, that was fine. I didn’t have any notes under doors. That must have been an earlier or later period you’re talking about… but anyway, I have no problem with criticism at all.

For a brief minute, a window opened, where by that particular group could have continued and could have had success independent of it’s parent group, Yes. It was beginning to design a music of its own that sounded special that had all the right things going on and that wasn’t Yes. Just for a minute, I could see that could have happened had we been left alone… and the album sold
respectably, three quarters of a million copies. It was a good day’s work at the office!

Inevitably, comes around the issue of a second record and that started out ok with the four of us playing and there were some early rhythm section tracks with me, Tony Levin and Steve Howe that were a lot of fun before Jon turned up at the sessions. However, very rapidly, that whole thing got hijacked by Arista Records who, having plowed money into this, decided… You know the phrase, “He who calls the piper calls the tune?”

WOG: Sure.

BB: Well, the more money you pay for a record, the more money you interfere with it – and this was a big budget record. So, they eventually decided that the guys in France (Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe) needed the assistance of all the other Yes guys in California (Chris Squire, Tony Kaye, Trevor Rabin and Alan White). So, our work was duly e-mailed, I guess, to them. They were then put on and found lacking. Then, also put on was a cast of a thousand studio musicians. So, the whole thing turned into the most God awful, auto-corrected mess you could possibly imagine! The worst record I’ve ever been on.

Click here to read page two of the interview

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