Give the Drummer Some
Frank Laurino Interviews Bill Bruford
In early April, British drumming legend Bill Bruford was at Berklee in Boston to give a lecture on his latest book, Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer. Dr. Bruford’s career is a testament to challenging what it means to be a drummer in a modern rock and jazz group. Keeping the beat for Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Earthworks, and an impressive list of eminent jazz and percussion artists has, on more than one occasion, redefined the drum kit itself and the drummer’s approach to playing it. We sat down with Bill that evening to talk about his new book for Seacoast Jazz Notes.
Frank: We’re here with Bill Bruford to ask him a few questions.
Bill: Can I ask myself another question if I don’t like the one you’re asking?
Frank: As long as you don’t then say “no comment” or “fake news.”
Frank: At the very start of your new book, Uncharted, we learn you were offered a degree from the University of Surrey in the UK, and you said, “No thanks. But I’ll earn one if you like…”
Bill: Yeah, I did. It was just a decision. If you give me something for free, I don’t value it as much as if I have earned it. So, great, if you can give me access to your department of musicology, I’d like to try to earn a doctorate. I think that’s how things should work.
Frank: And, a book at the end of it all.
Bill: Well, yes, there was about two more years of work after that. And then, of course, the publishing world seems to move at a glacial pace, doesn’t it? I guess it’s been six, seven years of work all told!
Frank: Your book looks at what creativity is for drummers, where it comes from, and how drummers respond to it. Was this something born out of retiring [from performance]? Or had you been asking these questions throughout your career?
Bill: I was definitely seeking these answers all along, I think, although I really didn’t know it. I thought I knew what creativity was: pushing things forward. I realized that not everyone I was playing with wanted to feel that way. How come? Also, I was motivated by why after 40-some years I had stopped playing. I was surprised. I kept trying to figure out: Why have I stopped?
Frank: And the answer was?
Bill: It took me a long time to distill it down to a few words, but here it is: I couldn’t hear what came next! I don’t mean “what came next in the bar of music,” but where does drumming go next? What am I supposed to do now?
Frank: That sounds rather unsettling.
Bill: Well… the worst possible thing to do is to keep going when you have nothing to say!
Frank: Time to leave the party, then.
Bill: Yes. And it was all very self-appointed. I mean, who gives a monkey’s other than me? No one, except that it’s me, so I care! Happily, I was able to find out a bit about all this through the psychology of music performance.
Frank: This was the basis for your study?
Bill: At university, yes. The psychology of it is all connected to creativity. Creativity makes you happy, which is one thing I can safely say. As is, I think, absence of creativity and unhappiness. I was stuck in that area somewhere, trying to find out how any of this applied to me. Eventually I got past the bit about “me,” which is very interesting to only one person. I then thought: I wonder if I could try to figure this out for [all] drummers?
Frank: Why drummers specifically and not all musicians?
Bill: Drummers have their own particular culture, and that culture has its own psychology. Drummers look at things differently than pitched-instrument practitioners. So I examined their perceptions—it’s really perceptions of creativity that are of interest. And this was the basis for my doctorate… you could say I used my doctorate for my own psychological reasons! [laughs]
Frank: Were there any surprising things you discovered while writing the book?
Bill: Hunches, suspicions—what I thought about drummers, certainly on the expert level—these were confirmed. You have to be careful when you’re talking loosely, yeah? But broadly I can say, with fear of contradiction from no man, that drummers are more creative than they think they are!
Frank: Drummers don’t appreciate their own creativity?
Bill: Certainly, if the way we all describe and discuss drummers is held to be truthful—we estimate drummers rather lowly, don’t we? We expect rather little from them. And as a result, we tend to get rather little. Which means, drummers could do more for us all if we wanted them to.
Frank: What I’m hearing you say is: Negative expectations cause low performance, which reinforces even lower expectations and more low performance…
Bill: I think you’re right. You get that negative spiral, don’t you? And depending on what you think “creative drumming” is, you could probably map that negative spiral across the last 50 years. Meters, tempos, they’ve become homogenized; the available beats which can “acceptably” be played, they’re homogenized. It’s a reduction over time, a lowering of expectations, which produces a lowering of results, which produces more lowered expectations… one might successfully argue that.
Frank: Is that downward spiral correctable? Or unavoidable?
Bill: Oh, it’s not unavoidable at all! It’s totally correctable! But at some point, somebody’s got to stand up and say, “Sorry, I think this is shit, and I’m going to play this another way!” And drummers are unlikely to do that.
Bill: Because I’ve found what drummers really want to do, what’s most important to them, is to make it work. It’s a rather selfless thing. Their prime motivation, by and large, is to make sure the music works.
Frank: You found this across the board?
Bill: With the expert drummer, yeah. They feel a primary responsibility to the musical situation. Is the music cool? Yeah? Okay, only then, maybe, make it different.
Frank: Let’s go back in time. You’re a young Bill Bruford--
Bill: Oh my god… I agree, I was an idiot!
Frank: [laughs] You buy a book called Uncharted by a drummer you greatly admire—say, someone along the lines of a Max Roach…
Bill: Oh! Great!
Frank: What do you make of the information in this book? How might it affect the course of your career?
Bill: Good question. What, I’m about 20 years old? Hmm. There are books about philosophy, or performance, or the philosophy of performance you might come across. And you’re a beginner, so this book might be a little above your head at 18 or 20. But, it doesn’t matter at all! There’s often a sentence or two in such a book that can alter your life. Even something that’s just an eye-opener, reading that might change your life. So, if someone can dip into the book every now and again… assuming you have an inquiring mind…
Frank: You like that idea for approaching your book?
Bill: I think dipping in and out is a great thing for the book. It’s not Wuthering Heights! [laughs] It’s a very dense book with a huge amount of information in it, and from some great drummers, collated from a guy who knows their world. And even if you don’t know a lot about drumming, that’s okay, I’m your tour guide.
Frank: What’s next for Bill Bruford?
Bill: I really haven’t got an idea past June or July. Everything of interest, I think, is always slightly beyond you, isn’t it? So you go ‘round and reach for things!
(Uncharted is available from The University of Michigan Press and from Amazon.com.)