Bill Rieflin: Steering R.E.M. Into Harder Waters
Steering R.E.M. Into Harder Waters
It’s well into a Thursday night in January and R.E.M.’s Bill Rieflin is making himself a cup of Scottish breakfast tea.
It’s not a terribly cold night in Seattle, where Rieflin has lived almost his entire life, but the wind makes it more intense. The gusts are evidence of January’s last gasping moments, and even then, it’s still only a few degrees above freezing at this late hour. It could be worse. Inside, the water for Rieflin’s potent tea has reached a light boil, and the silver-haired drummer pours some into a mug. The bronze color radiates from the black leaves, diffusing into the hot water. Rieflin says the stuff is so strong it has stained his teeth brown.
It’s been a busy 24 hours. The soft-spoken drummer spent today in the studio, setting up his equipment for a weeklong session with The Humans, a side project with English associates Toyah Wilcox and Chris Wong. Any other musician with only a single week to lay down an entire record would be nervous about getting the job done in time.
This Zen master is not worried. “I’ve laid down entire records in a day,” he says, between sips. “The first Minus 5 record I played on, I believe we recorded and overdubbed nine songs in a day. They were all mixed in a day. I think that’s even better than the first Beatles album. People say it was recorded in a day, but in fact it wasn’t. Certainly their songs were more popular.”
When the seven-day session is over, Rieflin will resume rehearsing with R.E.M., the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame band that he happens to play for. Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Rieflin will run through the songs from Accelerate, the band’s 14th studio album, with a major tour just around the corner. Rieflin said the band is locked, loaded, and ready to go.
“Record-making can be just a real pain in the ass, especially when there are a lot of people involved and they don’t see eye-to-eye,” he said. “There was a general consensus on aim here: To be guys in a rock band playing music.”
So here sits Bill Rieflin, the drummer for a band whose name alludes to the term “Rapid Eye Movement” and whose own Germanic last name translates to “Wolf Of Renown,” relaxing by himself with a cup of Taylor’s Of Harrogate with milk and sugar.
Zen master, indeed.
MAKING HASTE. Stripped down. That’s exactly what Accelerate sounds like. It’s a fitting name: guitars thrash, cymbals crash, and the album’s 11 tracks sound like they’ve been recorded in one high-speed session. Really, the album took nine weeks — which is pretty swift for R.E.M., according to Rieflin.
“It was meant to be a few things, but a fun record is one of them,” he said. “I think it’s important to enjoy the creative process. If you do, it tends to show in the output.”
Accelerate is said to be a sonic departure for R.E.M., but that might just be because the band finally gets to be the sum of its parts. The album opens with “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” a raucous, punk-styled offensive that has Rieflin’s hi-hats in full swing. In fact, for most of the album’s 11 tracks — such as the straight-fours rocker, “Mansized Wreath,” and the title track, “Accelerate” — Rieflin’s drums unceasingly ring in the back of the mix like they would in a cluttered garage, right behind big, coarse guitar chords that carry the song. Even when the band takes an epic stroke, such as in the rollicking “Houston” and the pensive “Until The Day Is Done,” Rieflin’s snare cracks out the sentiment. As a whole, it’s an anxious-sounding concoction — one that ends on a full-tilt explosion with “Horse To Water” and “I’m Gonna DJ.” It’s easy to picture Rieflin hopping back and forth on his throne for all 35 minutes of the album.
“[2004’s] Around The Sun was a studio record,” Rieflin says. “The new record is more ’a band record’ recorded in the studio. The songs on the new record really came to life from us playing them together.”
Rieflin says the band previewed songs last year in Seattle and played a week’s worth of shows in Ireland before giving the material the green light in the studio. “It was made in three three-week sessions,” Rieflin said. “Most of the tracking was done the first week of each of those sessions. We would work with what we had as we went along. Certainly, we did not overplay anything. We really wanted the record to be fresh and exciting, and to have good, positive energy. The tracks are essentially live tracks on which stuff was built. The five of us were in there banging away, making stuff happen. The mood was very good, very positive.”
Among the album’s tracks and the “battalion of B-sides” that didn’t make it onto the record, Rieflin said his favorite is the first single from the record, the poppy, big-riff “Supernatural Superserious.”
“That was one of the last things we recorded in Ireland. I like that song a lot. It has one of my favorite moments on the record — the intro to verse two — and verse two — has got the most awesome feel. It’s always such a huge pleasure to hear it.”
But the new album is more than just an alternative assault and return to mid-’90s form for the band. It’s aural evidence of a growth process for five experienced musicians. Rieflin says he likes to talk ideas, and that the significance of Accelerate goes beyond Stipe’s signature lyrical acrobatics.
“Meaning is not found only in lyrics. There is musical meaning,” Rieflin says. “The music has emotional content outside of whatever the lyrics are saying. Different songs have different aspects and meanings and ends, reasons for existing. Fun is really good. Fun suggests play, and play is sort of peer creativity. Children play. They don’t care about learning things or doing things. You can learn a lot through play, but it’s exuberant; it’s fun; it’s creative; it’s what you do when you’re alive. It’s a good natural condition.”
The recording studio is very much Rieflin’s home. “I’m definitely all about the studio and getting the work done,” he said. “I really like being in the studio. It offers an entirely different set of challenges. I like playing with sounds, I like getting performances right, I like being meticulous. Live, you can essentially get away with murder. Whereas, in the studio, you can get away with a different sort of murder.”
That’s not to say Rieflin doesn’t love a good live gig. Rieflin said touring with R.E.M. is “fantastic.”
“I couldn’t ask for a better group of fellows to travel with,” he said. “They’re all very nice guys; they’re all very smart guys. They’ve all been around for a long, long time and are essentially unfazed by much. It kind of suits me fine. I’m not a very exciting person. If there’s not a lot of excitement, that’s fine with me. The R.E.M. group — including the extended group — they are really exceptionally large-hearted individuals. It’s a sweet bunch of people.”
Keeping the balance of recording and playing live in R.E.M. has been a rewarding exercise. “Recorded music vs. live music is like a love letter versus a hot date,” he says. “I like writing. I like playing with the skills it takes to write a love letter. I like working with those elements. But, like everyone else, I like a good, hot, steamy date.”
FROM INDUSTRIAL TO INDUSTRY. Rieflin began his musical life playing the piano. His first public performance, playing Beatles and Credence Clearwater songs at age ten, was on a spring day in 1971 at a Unitarian church on 35th Street in Seattle, not terribly far from where he currently lives. “I still have the program,” he said. Four years later, he joined his first band.
“Some friends called and said their drummer hadn’t shown up for band rehearsal and would I sit in,” he said. “I hadn’t played in three years. Little did I know — I also wasn’t very good. Apparently, I was better than their real drummer, and I was asked to join the band, and I did. I’ve played drums pretty regularly since then.”
His early drumming years were chaotic at best. “I was in a band in my teen years called The Telepaths, which was a very bizarre and furious experience,” he said. “That turned into The Blackouts, which had a pretty respectable history.”
Rieflin spent the better part of the early ’80s with The Blackouts before things really got moving in 1984, when he and two Blackouts bandmates agreed to travel to Chicago to collaborate with Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen. Their work together would lay the foundation for what is now known as industrial metal, although Rieflin describes his eight years with Ministry as a difficult learning experience. “Ministry brought aggravation and annoyance,” Rieflin says. “Years of suffering. There were good things and bad things about it. I don’t know if the good things outweigh the bad things. I learned to play with the kind of precision that I wouldn’t have learned to play with otherwise. My overall playing may have suffered some because what was required of me was specific.”
Rieflin says Jourgensen’s work ethic was often in direct opposition to his own, and Rieflin left the band in the middle of the Filth Pig sessions in 1994. “The way that Ministry worked was very …” Rieflin pauses to think. “The kind way would say, ’inefficient.’ Weeks and months in the studio where there was no point in me hanging around. A lot of those sessions were drug fueled. I didn’t use drugs, so there was no way I could keep up with the way things were going. Studios are expensive, you know. If you want to throw a party, there are cheaper ways to do it.
“I played three songs on that record. It was an exceptionally unpleasant three weeks spent in Texas.”
Out of work but still passionate about recording, Rieflin looked elsewhere, and returned to a long list of side projects, including collaborations with Swans in 1994, musical collective Pigface, industrial rock band KMFDM, and a high-profile job playing for Nine Inch Nails, which started with a phone call from Trent Reznor in 1997. “He called me and asked me if I’d play for him,” Rieflin says. “I played for, like, eight hours a day, three days in a row. I generated a lot of material for those guys. And I think they used two things out of it.”
By the turn of the millennium, Rieflin had released his solo debut, Birth Of A Giant, started his own music label with longtime friend Chris Connelly, First World Music, and collaborated with him on 2000’s The Ultimate Seaside Companion and 2001’s Largo, which featured Rieflin on keyboard.
“I get to follow my imagination and see what it needs,” Rieflin said. “I’ve never been in search of the spotlight. I respond well to direction, I like to take direction, and I also like being left alone to come up with whatever I come up with.”
One of those collaborations, The Minus 5, also included R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. R.E.M. had been missing a permanent drummer since the 1997 departure of Bill Berry, and in 2004, the band extended a temporary offer to Rieflin. Part of the initial challenge was channeling Bill Berry.
“A greatest hits record had just come out, so a lot of the repertoire was focused on playing that,” he says. “The way for me to play those songs was really to make them sound as much as R.E.M. as I possibly could — really taking in Bill Berry’s playing and absorbing his feel and notes and style. Why he did things the way he did. I really wanted to become Bill Berry. I didn’t want to be some session drummer punching the clock. I always hated bands that bring in new players and everything’s just all wrong. It just never works.
“A lot of it is really technical. In a way, it’s more psychological. Where does feel come from?” he said. “I wanted to feel like Bill Berry — nobody asked me to do that. The best compliment would be that no one would notice. They’ve got a musical and personal history that, when I joined, extended back over 20 years. It wasn’t just something you sort of come into. It took some time how to figure out what my place was, my role. My role was the drummer.”
With Accelerate, the band’s new full-length album, Rieflin says he has truly found his place. “Bill [Berry] didn’t play on the new record. The other Bill did — Bill 2,” he said. “I don’t have to sound like Bill Berry anymore.”
LEARNING LEGENDS. It’s about noon on Monday in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, and Bill Rieflin is sitting at a table surrounded by drummers.
When he can make it, it’s Rieflin’s usual scene, but there isn’t a bandmember in sight. Today, like many Mondays, Rieflin is a guest of jazz drummer Matt Jorgensen, a local who hosts a weekly drummer’s lunch for area players to come hang out over a good meal. There is laughter, wisecracks, and the usual sounds of a circle of friends. The group rarely mentions their common craft. Today’s an exception. Rieflin’s talking shop with local legend Gregg Keplinger, and though he’s fascinated by Keplinger’s talk of jazz technique and stories from being a Soundgarden drum tech, it makes him slightly uncomfortable. Unlike some sitting at this table, Rieflin never had formal technique training, and the gulf between him and those with schooling is enormous in Rieflin’s mind.
“These guys grew up learning how to play in a way I didn’t learn how to play,” Rieflin says. “I grew up in a different era, a few years behind them. How they learned and what they learned was different for me. I actually never took lessons until after I’ve been playing for a long time. The problem with that is that I had developed so many bad habits developed in such miserable ways. I spent the last 15 or so years basically unwinding everything I’ve done up until now, with varying degrees of success.”
To do that, Rieflin’s thrown himself full-force into his drumming history, opening his ears to the new, exciting sounds of unheard-of Seattle drummers, as well as the classic performances he missed as a youth. He could go on for hours about his idols.
“The first time I heard Max Roach doing his solo on ’St. Thomas’ — you go, ’Oh, jeez, that was really exciting,’” he says. “And I absolutely adore Budgie from [Siouxie &] The Banshees — really, really exciting player. I saw Dave Weckl play recently. You watch a guy like that play and it’s amazing. I recently took a drum lesson from Dave Garibaldi — the guy’s a deep groove player but he’s an amazing technician. Watching [Terry] Bozzio play, it’s a marvel. And Glen Kotche from Wilco — he does these solo things, it’s quite stunning. He does Steve Reich pieces, and these pieces with metric modulations. He’s playing pieces written for a group of guys all by himself.”
For an “idea guy” like Rieflin, the inspiration is as much an exercise of the mind as it is of the limbs. “Amazing technique is always inspiring,” he says. “I’m working on my imagination. I’m responding to things now that I didn’t respond to as a younger person.”
As Accelerate is R.E.M.’s liberation from middle age, so is technique training for Rieflin. “My current years are about acquiring a technique that I never had,” Rieflin says. “Learning how to do things well, better, with intention, instead of blazing and blasting. As I get older, I can’t get away with using sheer force. I don’t have that kind of energy anymore — I don’t feel like working so damn hard. I’m interested in acquiring a technique that lets me be lazier.” He stops and laughs. “A good technique allows a player to do what he wants to do. You can’t just walk in, sit behind the drum kit, and make that happen. That isn’t the way it works.
“I was taught by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, which was myself. How long have I been playing? I usually give two stock answers: long enough to know better, and long enough that I should be better.”
THE ROAD AHEAD. The Zen master is getting tired. The sun set hours ago, he finished his tea, and all he’s thinking about is that he must rise bright and early the next morning to get sounds in the studio for The Humans. Rieflin says that the studio is not far from his Seattle home, but “it could always be closer.” Even though he’s scheduled to return to R.E.M. soon, he’s thinking about his other side projects, including one improvisational group that includes Peter Buck. “I’ve got a Slow Music record in the bag, ready to go,” he says. “I like to be busy. I like time off — except when I get time off, I get antsy. Then I work, and I think, ’God, I want time off.’ I have no hobbies — that’s my problem.”
In the meantime, Rieflin says he will continue working to become a more versatile player. “I haven’t yet learned to play,” he said. It’s a part of Rieflin’s workaholic, exacting nature. He may be the Zen master, but he’s still the consummate professional musician — and nothing gets his pulse going like the prospects of a new musical direction.
“I’d like to just make really, really, really, really great records,” he says. “There are always better ones waiting. I still take the approach that my best work is yet to come. I’m absolutely not interested or excited by my past. I’m absolutely interested and excited in my future.”
DRUMS: Gretsch (Blue Sparkle)
22" x 14" Bass Drum
14" x 6" Ludwig Black Beauty Snare
13" x 9" Rack Tom
16" x 16" Floor Tom
18" x 16" Floor Tom
15" Medium Light Hi-Hats (two tops stacked)
19" Dark Energy Crash
22" Twenty Light Ride
18" Dark Energy Crash
Bill Rieflin also uses Gibraltar 6600 Series hardware, Regal Tip sticks, and TK heads.
Why Peter Buck Digs Rieflin
Ex-Ministry basher Bill Rieflin may seem an odd choice as the “new” drummer for R.E.M., but not when you consider that Rieflin and guitarist Peter Buck have played together in different projects for over ten years. Still, the jangle-pop icons had to have been a major adjustment for the erstwhile industrial icon.
“Generally, say, if Bill was going to learn our old material, I would definitely suggest listening to the old records and do what [original R.E.M. drummer] Bill Berry does,” says Buck, relaxing in Hawaii before starting a major tour behind Accelerate. “Anything current, it’s all his arrangement ideas. He doesn’t have to play like Bill Berry would have. We hired him for his ability to use balance, so he’s totally free to play whatever he seems to feel makes sense.”
One of Rieflin’s most unique traits is the way he takes rhythm cues from the singer rather than working off the bassist or guitarist. “We’ll play things instrumentally and he’ll have great parts,” says Buck, “but he’s definitely one of those guys that the minute he hears the vocal, his part changes a little bit.”
According to Buck, R.E.M.’s past and present drummers — Berry, Joey Waronker, Barrett Martin (ex-Screaming Trees), and now, Rieflin — all brought different things to the table. “Bill Berry had a kind of unique style and I think a lot of it was about the way he used the hi-hat, the kick drum, and the snare drum — he had a very interesting way of syncopating them. It was a lot of late ’70s funk-disco feel in the way he played, except fit to the tempo of our songs. Joey was a session guy, so he could do a lot of different stuff — tropicalia and samba — and adding little elements of that into the music.”
What Buck valued in Rieflin was well roundedness. “As a player he can do almost anything and he’s also very musically knowledgeable,” Buck says. “Not just about the drums — he’s got perfect pitch. And he’s a good keyboard player and guitar player and singer.”
For many longtime fans, however, Bill Berry will always be the R.E.M. drummer. “That’s the general perception, but when Bill left, he left, and as much as I love the guy, he’s gone,” says Buck. “Maybe the rest of the world sees [Rieflin] as a replacement — I don’t see it that way. A lot of people who know the band and have seen us play said the last tour that we did was the best tour that we’ve done performance-wise.”
Drummers Past: Joey Waronker
In many ways, R.E.M. are the sacred cows of indie-rock, which makes it imposible for a replacement musician to waltz into the band without feeling the backbreaking weight of their legacy. “For R.E.M. fans it was the same as if Ringo was being replaced, honestly,” says Joey Waronker, who drummed with the band from 1997 to 2001.
The role of R.E.M. timekeeper was a daunting one for Waronker even though he had already played with Beck, Elliot Smith, Smashing Pumpkins and others. “One of my first impressions was, ’Wow, I’m not playing in an R.E.M. cover band — this is the real thing.’ I had to learn all those albums worth of songs and get up to speed with that. If the guys decided they wanted to play something that maybe we hadn’t rehearsed and they haven’t played in ten years … just kind of be on top of it.”
But Waronker quickly got past the abstract idea of playing in a famous pop group before experiencing on a deeper level why the Athens, Georgia dudes are special. “Michael [Stipe] has a certain charisma and power as an artist that I can’t say I have experienced too many other times, particularly on stage.”
So why would anyone leave such a sweet gig? “I wanted to make a bold move and switch directions from the side band role — the hired gun,” he explains. “When it came time for the next round of stuff it had been five years and I just said, ’I need to set a five-year limit for myself.’”
As far as the choice of Rieflin for his replacement, Waronker admits it was a no brainer. “When I knew I wasn’t going to do it anymore I was like, ’Well, they should just get Bill.’ They’re all buddies, they’ve been playing together for years, they all live in the same town [Buck and Rieflin both reside in Seattle]. I would have been shocked if they didn’t.”
Rieflin’s R.E.M. Riffs
“Living Well Is The Best Revenge”
It’s worth emulating Bill Rieflin’s brand of no-nonsense style. He’s lent his skills to a wide range of artists, and built his career by delivering straight-up powerhouse drumming. Every beat and fill is designed to propel the music and the band forward, which he clearly demonstrates on the lead-off track from R.E.M.’s Accelerate, “Living Well Is The Best Revenge.” He begins simply enough by playing a single-stroked crescendo that leads into a train-style snare groove with heavily accented backbeats. He moves it to his sloshy hi-hats for the verse and the crash during the final section of this transcription.
Rieflin plays a funkier groove for “Man-Sized Wreath,” with a bit of grease that he embellishes with ghosted snare notes on some of the e’s and ah’s. He changes the mood of these alternating sections by either playing his hi-hats clamped tight or open. It’s simple, but effective.