Bill Bruford: Retirement



Words by Iain Ballamy

Bill Bruford has retired. His website explicitly states this and kindly directs journalists to consult a reading list before requesting interviews. The reading list is divided into several subheadings, each of which house the relevant books and articles relating to the titular subject. These are: ‘Progressive Rock In General,’ ‘Yes,’ ‘King Crimson/Robert Fripp,’ and ‘Genesis.’ If you were unsure of the scale of Bill’s musical background, a glance at this list will testify to its extensiveness. So after all this, what, having becoming one of the most respected drummers of all time, do you do with your retirement? Write a book? Alas, the fifth and final subheading is simply entitled ‘Bill Bruford’ and refers the inquisitive to his biography published in 2009.

I can’t quite remember how I discovered he had enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey, but in all honesty, I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear of it. During the last three years he has adopted a stage of a different sort and has delivered lectures in the UK, the US and Scandinavia, mostly concerning the drum set’s relationship with creativity and musicianship. His PhD is based on a similar theme. Taking heed of the reading list, I sent out an email. What follows is the result.


The Drummer’s Journal: So what has prompted you to probe the depths of your psyche and ask the question most never dare to ask, ‘why do drummers do what they do and what have I spent my life doing?’

Bill Bruford: What I always liked to try to do when I was a player was make something of a contribution – no matter how tiny – to the understanding of drumming and drummers, what they do, what we expect or want them to do, what might be possible or acceptable tomorrow. I guess you could call me a ‘big-picture’ kinda guy, but you’d have to do so in an American accent. After many years I realised I knew nothing about it, so replaced my sticks with a quill pen and now live in a library. Maybe I’ll find something under the desk that I can share with my colleagues.

Is that question not a little dangerous? We can’t change the past and supposing you are not happy with the answer?

Researchers don’t have to be happy. I’m framing a question, which will generate a thesis, with several hypotheses, which I shall try to prove or disprove, and then I’ll need a pint. Are you a religious man? Well, I’m a lapsed atheist. I tried, honestly, but I’m just no good at it. I tried shopping on Sundays, but I just couldn’t get into it. If Sunday is a choice between God and shopping, I know which one frightens me the least.

Do you see the separate phases of your life with a sense of continuum or as separate chapters or even separate lives?

I’ve always seen our allotted time here on the planet as a straight line but tragically short; over in a flash. So perhaps one of my many faults was to have been in too much of a hurry.

Do you feel a different person now you have stopped being a musician and become a student?

No, much the same old Bruford. My broadband hasn’t got any faster! I rate slow broadband as one of the key agents in the demise of Earthworks. I was unable to buy plane tickets within an acceptable timeframe. My blood pressure is probably lower now. Attending gigs and concerts as a civilian is rough work, though. If the music is any good I want to play. If it isn’t I want to leave. Either makes me a terrible evening out.

Photo: Deirdre O' Callaghan

Photo: Deirdre O' Callaghan

What’ve you learned about yourself and others through music?

I’m very admiring of those musicians who are at peace with their contribution, and able to live with it. I became increasingly riddled with self-doubt, and the maggots of inadequacy. [Is that a good name for a neo-punk outfit – the Maggots of Inadequacy?] For some people - Tim Garland, Gwil Simcock, Asaf Sirkis, to name the last three I’ve seen - the effort becomes effortless, and the music just seems to pour out. Appearances can be deceptive, of course, and underneath the serenity I suspect, like a duck’s legs below the waterline, some are paddling very fast.

If you had your time as a bandleader again, is there anything you would do differently?

No, it was brilliant. You hire the best guys you can bribe to play with you, and get a free music lesson a nightly basis. Without exception everyone who went through my two bands Bruford and Earthworks gave of their best with unstinting generosity. I’m getting weepy. Got a tissue?

Can you articulate how you see the scene and orientation of a musician as having changed or is it still the same as it ever was but just in a different age?

Some levels just the same, some levels all different. The age old struggle with wood, gut, drumstick, plectrum and mouthpiece remains intact. It’s going to take you 10,000 hours before you get reasonably good. But the context in which the outcome of that struggle is ‘monetised’ - as we used to say here at Lehman Brothers - is frighteningly different. And this social networking thing has got to stop. Luckily younger, wiser people than I don’t care about any of this. They have a laudable ability to just get on with it.

Drummer jokes apart, is there an innate feeling of inequality with other musicians or is that a thing of the past?

A band is only as good as its drummer, it’s been said. If the drummer’s hopeless, you’re dead in the water. On the other hand, if he’s good, he can get you through a terrible evening. But yes, after decades of having their contribution denigrated, I think the drum community generally - if I could be so bold as to speak for an entire community - could be forgiven for having developed a small but tangible sense of inferiority. They’ve over-compensated, of course, by becoming highly proficient and often very successful writers and producers, whether you’re at the Phil Collins, Freddie White, Neil Peart end, or the Gary Husband, Jack DeJohnette, the late Paul Motian or Peter Erskine end. So look out…

Are drummers disenfranchised by computer programming and generic popular music genres which deploy an ‘ever diminishing selection of beats and tempi?’

Recent research from Bristol University confirms that popular music is getting louder and more repetitive. What drummers used to do and should do is dynamics, but there’s not much call for that these days. I expect my research to confirm that drummers live in a world of homogenised rhythm despatched within a diminishing number of metres and within a diminishing range of tempi revolving around the celebrated 120 b.p.m. – the default tempo of much electronic kit when it comes out of the box. These are indeed challenging times for the creative drummer living under the tyranny of the backbeat in a commercial world, as I was telling the students at Kingston University the other day. The discourse tends to revolve around “is your hi-hat sample better than mine?”

So is there a revolution around the corner? When and how might that happen?

We could start by banning the words ‘jazz’ and ‘rock’, which cause a whole lot of trouble.

I have never met another musician who retired. Nobody does that through choice, usually a musician dies at the hotel, on stage, or on the road. Has this almost unprecedented and original act made your contemporaries uncomfortable in that you have dared to do something that others wouldn’t?

I’m not sure anyone is uncomfortable about anything, least of all me. Retiring, of course, implies that you can afford to do so, and I guess that can attract suspicion. I think too many of us are obliged to continue for financial reasons only, which is a shame. The stadia of the world are clogged with geriatric rockers, who tend to prevent the emergence of young blood. The older guys are effectively institutionalised and now know no other life. If they don’t get a proper hotel and a wake-up call they don’t know what to do. I loved Max Roach’s playing. Someone sent me a CD of his latest music shortly before he died, and it was tragic. I didn’t want to remember him like that. You could see daylight between him and the bass player. I never could see the appeal of dying in a hotel room.

So in 70,000 words time when you have finished your PhD on why you did what you have done with your life, what next? A trout farm perhaps?

I thought I might look at psychiatry.


This interview originally appeared in Issue One (December, 2012) of The Drummer's Journal. Click HERE to open this issue.