Interview with Bill Bruford in Boston Rock

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Date Submitted: 18-Apr-1994
Submitted By: Gary Hanley (ghanley at novalink dot com)

This article appeared in the Feb '94 issue of Boston Rock, and I'm forwarding it with permission from the author. Enjoy!

-- Gary

Interview with Bill Bruford
Close to the hedge: The symphonic music of Yes

by Michael Bloom

Bill Bruford probably has the most impressive resume of any musician associated with the old classic progressive rock of the '70s. Moreover, he's one of the handful still making waves in the industry, by making interesting new music.

So he didn't feel much more constrained than I did to talk about that blast from the past he was recently involved with, _The Symphonic Music of Yes_ (RCA Victor), even though that's what the publicist who set up the interview thought we were doing. As we shall see, he's got other irons on the fire nowadays. But he did give us the unsentimental inside dope on that record, in his droll and articulate manner.

"Setting up an album these days is a bit like Hollywood," he explained. "You have to run a script, put together a package... You get a phone call, 'We're doing this, do you want to be in or out.' And it came past my desk and it was a case of 'I think maybe I'd rather play drums on this than have someone else do it.' Personally I thought it was quite good, and I quite enjoyed re-recording stuff and having a second go at it."

For you studio mavens, here's how they did it. "The band played generally as a rock group, live in the studio. We had five days, I think, and did the eight or nine or whatever cuts. They'd been rearranged, David Palmer had extended some sections and cut out others and so forth, so my mental arrangements of these ancient pieces of music were somewhat scuppered. So there were charts. Tim Harries is the bass player from Earthworks, very good sightreader. So there were a lot of charts everywhere, and we just played those-- and played them as a rock group, with the full intention they should sound very good. There were no sequencers running.

"And then maybe a week later, there were three three-hour sessions for the orchestra, which was recorded by Alan Parsons. I don't really know Alan Parsons's work, but he seems to be a bit of a whiz at orchestral recording. 54 musicians came in, and in nine hours-- which is quite quick to do all that, you have to watch the clock, because they go into triple overtime... As the last dying notes in the last piece ebbed away, they just got there in time, I think, it was one of those high stress situations. I wasn't there for that."

So there wasn't a lot of creative involvement on Bruford's part, and his ego isn't on the line here. "Occasionally saying, David, you should really leave this passage out, and you've got the beat wrong in this, and you're misunderstanding the tempo of this, that and the other. So I was able to correct and iron out one or two things that were going to go badly wrong metrically, sort of the rhythm consultant to the stars!"

So when I described the record as a botch, Bruford wasn't too bent out of shape. Much. Yes in its prime, which included most of the music on this record, required five talented guys working at peak efficiency to perform this music, and I figured if you could spread that information out among 54 people, you might get more nuance in there-- especially since Stravinsky, one of the all-time masters of orchestral color, was admittedly a big influence on the band.

"Possibly so," he admitted. "Where we missed that, you're a dissatisfied customer, and where we got that right you're more or less okay. And I agree, to take a balanced view here, it's an uneven album. But there are moments of grandeur... I think the basses on the front of 'Heart of the Sunrise,' there's a certain timbral quality there which is really wonderful."

Yeah, that's one of the good bits. I also kinda like the entrance of the "Close to the Edge" waltz theme, and a few other examples of clever orchestral voicings. Which makes the bulk of the album that much more frustrating, knowing that if they'd focused on the orchestra first, it could have been brilliant.

"There you go, now. That's a different way of doing it, and the record company would see that as tampering with 'classic' tracks. That's the world we're living in nowadays, there are orders, instructions issued to the musicians... Ironically, even though they will now let us senior serious sober proficient professional musicians have the London Philharmonic at our current age, and at 18 and 20 years old they wouldn't let us have such a thing, we probably would have made better use of it then."

How did Yes do what they did at 18 and 20 years old, anyway? "With an awful lot of blood spilled on the floor! Nothing was ever written down, they weren't in that sense written. But we would all set up the instruments in a circle, the traditional rehearsal room style, and stare at our feet for a bit-- until somebody said, 'Well, I've got a bit of a riff and it goes pom, pom,' and then Wakeman would say, 'We can put that over some chord change,' and I'd say, 'Well that's not really much fun, can't we halve the tempo or something,' and it would go to and fro like this in a painfully slow and very amateurish method, and nobody really knew what was happening.

"Jon Anderson would have a guitar in his hands and play two ghastly chords which nobody wanted to play, and it was always a case of if you've got something better, do it. So Steve would begin to figure out some other little chord change or movement around what Jon had offered, and he'd sing on top of anything that came, and away you go. It wasn't Sibelius sitting down and writing something, it was four kids all sort of knocking shoulders together.

"I think two or three times those particular four or five guys got very lucky, with 'Close to the Edge' and 'Heart of the Sunrise.' Now you can't afford to do that any more, there's too many professionals around, and I wouldn't ever want to sit around again in rehearsal rooms the way we did.

And that's about all the insight Bruford can offer about Yes. He has no idea how they work nowadays. "I must immediately say I'm not a member of Yes, and not purporting to be a member of Yes. There is a group called Yes in Los Angeles, which I think comprises, as of yesterday, Alan White, Chris Squire, Trevor Rabin, Jon Anderson and Tony Kaye. The Howe-Bruford-Wakeman faction is on the whole not required, which is fine by more or less all parties," he laughs.

"You know, I run my own group, it's a small group called Earthworks, and when that has rehearsals, people bring in bits of paper. But tunes on the whole are written, I mean those guys read and write, and they're much sketchier things and they can just be played much more quickly. I love that about the jazz side. I get my sense of improvisation and chaos from being in a room with people who are all banging away at the same time."

The next Earthworks album should be out in a month or so, consisting of live recordings from the last tour. "I'm very pleased with this live stuff, definitely my best playing in a long time. I was thrilled to be able to wail and get it down." Most of it, he says, was recorded at Nightstage, and he was disappointed to learn that the club no longer exists.

Despite a much lower commercial profile than Yes-- or perhaps because of that-- Bruford finds Earthworks more musically satisfying. For example, Earthworks gets to improvise a lot, which Yes never really did. "You absolutely are glued to the edge of your seat, or as a drummer I am," he enthuses. "Not quite knowing which way the wind's going to blow next, juggling, trying to make sense out of it, that is great fun. And of course you can't do that in rock music on the whole."

And Bruford should know, as he was also once a member of one of rock's all time great improvising ensembles, King Crimson. "When Crimson stopped in '84, to me that was kind of a watershed. That felt like the end of that particular time, where you could somehow be creative, quote-unquote, in a major label rock group as a drummer, that you could think of things and do things that were interesting. There was a core audience, a couple hundred thousand guys who would support such a thing, and you could make a living at it. No one's talking about getting rich, but you could make a living at it. Since '84 I've found that to be more or less impossible in the music industry. So I moved sideways into jazz, where people go when they want to do that stuff on the drum set. And fine too, I have no trouble with that."

So we discussed King Crimson for a while. "You don't jam with Robert Fripp," he observed drily. I mentioned how Fripp, in his booklet notes to the _Great Deceiver_ box set, calls me clueless.

"Oh does he? Well there you go. That's an honor, if you've only been called clueless. You should hear what I've been called. We're in a very rarefied group of writers and musicians who've been disparaged internationally, so join the club!"