Terry Bozzio: An Interview From The Vault Part I
There’s a small group of names that command a certain reverence among drummers. One word is usually enough for any stick-wielder with a pulse to acknowledge the significance. Buddy. Krupa. Elvin. Max. Bellson. Bonham. Bruford. Tony. If it’s not at that stage already, certainly in twenty years the name Bozzio will be uttered in the same hushed, hallowed tones.
The history of Terry Bozzio’s professional career is well-documented. Every time there was some so-called plateau to reach, it was met. Brecker Brothers. U.K. Frank Zappa’s “Black Page.” When commercial success beckoned, faster than you could say “hairspray,” he was they key instigator of one of the ’80s more significant bands, Missing Persons.
But somewhere along the line Terry seemed to discover that maybe making music wasn’t about reaching the plateaus, or selling a large amount of records-- perhaps the journey was the best part. It was at this point Terry seemed to joyously break out in different directions.
On one hand, he went inward, taking his Stravinsky-inspired ostinato drum solo compositions to unprecedented heights, single-handedly creating a cottage industry of study materials, videos, books and drum equipment. On the other hand, Terry never lost touch with his love for removing the safety net and just letting things rip with other inspired musicians. Whether a chops-showcase or an honest to goodness band, at times it was tough to keep up with all the different projects. But damn if it wasn’t fun to try-- Steve Vai, Patrick O’Hearn, Polytown, Jeff Beck, The Knack, The Lonely Bears, bpm, and the projects with bassist Tony Levin and guitarist Steve Stevens ("Situation Dangerous").
We caught up with Terry at home in Austin after a clinic tour with fellow Zappa-cohort Chad Wackerman to talk about the albums, the projects, the medieval ostinato-torture devices, and Frank’s legacy.
DRUM!: I have to ask about the clinics with Chad Wackerman-- how did they come together?
Bozzio: Based on all the touring I’ve done in the past and looking at it kind of from both sides of the fence, from the dealers and from the drum and cymbal companies, and then from myself as an artist, with the whole point of what going out on tour and doing a drum clinic performance is-- I just saw so many problems with it. Drum companies don’t really have a person who is a booking-agent type. No matter how many times you tell them, they’re being pulled in several different directions, and sometimes they don’t ultimately get it together where it benefits everyone involved.
So I figured, okay, at this point I’ve done this so many times and I’ve gotten more and more involved in routing the tours and trying to make everything make sense financially-- why don’t I just do the whole thing myself and get backing from DW to help get it up and running? So that’s what I did. I came up with the concept of myself and Chad, two ex-Zappa drummers who both play DW and we did the southeast tour and it was a lot of fun. People loved it.
DRUM!: Did you rehearse much for the clinics? How did you guys structure the program?
Bozzio: We knew we wanted to do something together, and my whole feeling about doing things with other people is just to let it happen in the moment. So you use every bit of musicality and knowledge in that kind of situation. And I find that in the focus of the moment, the hyper-focus of doing a performance, you come up with great ideas that aren’t the same as when you’ve got the luxury of sort of sitting around and thinking about it. It’s not really something you think about, it’s something that’s internalized.
So we knew we were just going to play like that, it could go anywhere. And it did. God, sometimes we jammed for many, many minutes, not just 15. So there was some great stuff that happened. Then we were able to work on "The Black Page" separately, and just got together here in Austin a day before the gig.
DRUM!: What did you think of Chad’s performances?
Bozzio: Chad’s big leap this time was that he prepared a bunch of solo drum music, so he was able to do his show without the use of a DAT or playing along with recorded material. I was really proud of the statements he was making. He did one solo in seven, with a half-time melody over it, one of those confusing aural illusions that happens the first few times you hear it, until you can count it out. He had a few really exceptional pieces.
DRUM!: What do you think of him in general as a player?
Bozzio: Oh man, the guy is really deep. The guy played much more difficult music with Zappa than I ever did. Things like "Mo N’Herb’s Vacation," stuff that made "The Black Page" look like a primer.
The other thing is, his technique is really excellent. Amazing chops, and he’s incredibly clean and controlled. A lot of times, guys who have amazing chops are kind of mechanical. But Chad is so sensitive, he’s so musical. It’s a great combination of the depth of musicality and sensitivity, and then on the other hand the depth of his knowledge of technique.
He’s done incredible stuff with everybody he’s played with, from Zappa to Holdsworth and his own stuff too. And now his writing is really blossoming. I was able to hear his CD ["Scream"], and you can hear the melodic and harmonic depth. A lot of times, when drummers try to write, they have motifs that may not be the best for the ultimate musical outcome. I think Chad’s musical sensibilities are so great that he was able to make a real beautiful album, not just something to set him up to play the drums or just to prove, "Look at me, I can write, and I can write fancy stuff!" It’s really more from the heart.
DRUM!: You released your second album with Tony Levin and Steve Stevens, "Situation Dangerous," and it definitely sounds like you took more time on that one.
Bozzio: Yeah, we had about a week of rehearsals and about ten days in the studio. So there was a lot more structure, and the record is more cohesive. And it’s also kind of a nice compliment to the other record, which had its strengths in the "off-the cuff-ness" of it and the magic that happens without preconceived ideas. Whereas this one, it was a little more difficult for me in that we approached it more like a session. There were pieces where we’d go for takes and sections of tunes. So it was a little bit more pedantic in its approach, for me.
But on the other hand, the cohesiveness of the results is really nice. And it’s sort of an equalizer too, because I put Steve in a tough position trying to do the first record, because he’d never really worked that way. So this is my way of coming back, I think, and trying to work in a way where he was more comfortable, because most of the ideas musically were coming from his direction, and therefore I was kind of forced into playing to accompany those ideas as opposed to what I would play from the heart in the spur of the moment.
DRUM!: Did everybody come in with ideas beforehand, or were the tunes put together pretty much in those ten days?
Bozzio: Pretty much in those ten days. I’m sure some of Steve’s ideas, he had and brought in, and on the other hand things would come up based on what we were doing. So it was a little bit of both.
DRUM!: Let’s talk about a couple of the pieces. "Crash" is reminiscent of something like "Sling Shot" off of Jeff Beck’s "Guitar Shop. "
Bozzio: Steve came up with that line, a high energy kind of punk thing. The bridge goes into five, and that was coming from me and Tony. We experimented some different B-sections and then it ended up in that half-time thing. To me a lot of the feel of the album has to do with tragedy and that dark film-noir kind of thing, a little bit science fiction detective, black and white, shady things.
DRUM!: Which leads me to guitarist Steve Stevens, who is the X-factor in this, to me. I mean, this was the "Billy Idol" guy, and now he’s doing this and "Flamenco A Go Go. "
Bozzio: Yeah, he just has a lot of musical depth, which you could even hear in the pop format. His arrangements and parts were great in the ’80s style of music, but I had no idea that the guy could play that well. He’s a highly accomplished guitarist, and I don’t think that many people know that. So I was happy to be the instigator to set him up in this kind of situation to get him known as a player, rather than just as "The Rock God" or something like that. And he’s a very fluent flamenco player.
For me, I come from a musical background where I’ve heard a lot of stuff over the years, and I have an appreciation for ethnic styles of all kinds, as long as it’s really high quality. But flamenco, I’d probably heard it around the house, and watching Jose Greco on the Ed Sullivan Show, and other sort-of public television specials that you’d see over the last 30-40 years. I knew there was something going on that really moved me. The connection with drumming is obvious, of course.
And I had the opportunity to play with this flamenco dancer, Andreas Murim, who comes from Seville, Spain. It was in Holland, a percussion festival with Trilok Gurtu, myself, Vinx, Zakir Hussain and Manashio Embande, from Africa. So we all played together and everybody was moved by this young kid who could just go out there with a guy behind him and play flamenco guitar and dance damn near better than any drummer that had played. Had so much passion and drama and pathos going on, it really moved me. He didn’t speak any English, but his girlfriend did. So she got us together and told me, "Andreas was really moved by your playing." And I thought, "Well wow, tell him I feel the same." I hope to work with him more in the future.
So when Steve and I brought the influences together on the first Black Light Syndrome album, we did a tune called "Duente," which was completely off-the-cuff and totally amazing. We definitely have that in common.
DRUM!: How did you and Steve meet?
Bozzio: He saw me play at the House of Blues for a DW Drum Day event. He saw my solo drum music and really liked it. And to me, that’s important. If somebody doesn’t get that or appreciate it, then I don’t see what the point is in going on, because that’s just so much a part of my heart. No matter what project I approach, if they don’t know that I’m coming from that space, it may be a little confusing and controlling, etc. So his liking what I was doing made me feel really safe.
And then we got together over at his house, and he played me a couple of these tracks that I don’t know if they ended up on "Flamenco A Go Go" or not, but man-- the bottom line was, I thought if we play nothing more than the music for his solo record, I’d be happy to do that.
DRUM!: "Tziganne" features some wonderful flamenco guitar playing. But soloing-wise, it’s almost a departure for you because you’re known for the ostinato work, and here you go with melodic motifs on the piccolo toms.
Bozzio: Yeah, I’ve got a set of four piccolo toms and four short-stack toms. Together with my snare and my highest normal-shell tom, I’ve got and octave and a third of the white notes of the piano. So this gives me a lot of different melodic, harmonic and modal variations. And I can use other drums that are deeper, that relate to those top tonalities, as tonal centers.
For instance, if I go to an E shell tom and kind of pedal on that, I can use the same white notes but be in an E Phrygian mode. And then if I go down to a D I’m in the Locrian mode, or if I’m on A I’m in A minor. My development over the last year or two had been not so much in the ostinato area as opposed to getting deeper melodically and harmonically with what I’ve got on these piccolo toms. So "Tziganne" was the one tune that allowed me to use what my latest developments on the drum set have been. I actually tuned the F to an F#, so it was in the key of what we were doing. But basically I was able to do a flamenco-esque guitar solo over a little ostinato.
That type of thing is really what I’m into now. I’ve got harmonic etudes now that use all of the chords and a whole lot of different progressions and relationships within that. And it’s really amazing to think, I’ve got all these white notes, so what can you do with these white notes? And you don’t just want to go like a perfect cadence, so how do you use these things in a way where you can make progressions that are hip to you and are interesting musically and delineate these harmonies? I’ve really been able to use every dang chord that’s available and put them together into a little piece. So that’s the area I’ve been working on more lately.
DRUM!: Where are those types of ideas coming from?
Bozzio: I think it’s taking more of a keyboard approach to the drum set. It’s like many, many little things that have just stuck in my head, that I’ve read or been influenced by, over the course of a long period of time. And then you move more in that direction, and it was about five years ago I went to the full-blown set of piccolo toms. The first thing you do is you’re playing typical paradiddles and other things that you did on the small drums.
But then after a while you start to go, okay what is the logic and what is the expression according to the traditional laws of melody, and what are my options here? So I began by thinking, okay I’ve got these modal options. And by starting or ending around certain tonal centers, it puts you in different modes. So that was step one.
Then I got into finding all the different pentatonic scales that were available. Finding the chords that I liked, the things I had learned from the jazz I had listened to. And just figuring out what the options are, you know. There are certain chords that sound good going into other chords, and other chords that sound very typical or "Happy Birthday," and you want to stay away from those. So I started writing out all the little combinations that were available to me and the different voicings and inversions.
I remember reading a book by Stravinsky, where he said that the contrapuntal aspects of the vibraphone really excited him, and he felt that that had yet to be fully exploited. This was years before Gary Burton came along with four mallets. So I figured, okay I haven’t got four notes I can play at once, but I can have two. And I thought, let’s use the melodic and harmonic and contrapuntal types of motion, either in single-note melodies with two hands doing independent melody lines, or else by rolling in between the two toms and moving the hands independently and creating a sustained harmonic event that changed independently. Very much like fugue. You can use canon, contrary motion, parallel motion, oblique motion, similar motion. So I break these things down and study it, just like I did with permutations.
I always use this comparison. You could drink a 44-ouncer from 7-11 of American-filtered coffee, or you could drink one little Italian espresso and get the same amount of caffeine. So you could study for twenty years every drum book that’s ever written, and they’re not worth the trees that they cut down to make these books, you know? Whereas if you boil down the essence of what a few of the great drum writers have said, then you can take that information and reapply it in an infinite amount of ways. And you’ll have the essence of the whole in the sum of its smallest parts and variations.
DRUM!: Where did your theory knowledge come from?
Bozzio: I’m pretty well schooled in theory from my two and a half years at the College of Marin, which has a really good music department. I stepped away from that with an AA degree. And the composition and the other things, I studied on my own after the fact, literally after say 15 years or so. Just taking a book on a plane when you’re on tour, and relating theoretical concepts to the drums. And once you boil the concept down to its basic element, you can reapply it in an infinite amount of ways, and you’re using the language of the European tradition that’s been with us for 400 years, to describe it in infinite ways.
DRUM!: You’ve also got some albums out, reissues actually, with The Lonely Bears. This came out of the tours with Jeff Beck and keyboardist Tony Hymas.
Bozzio: What happened was, I had a different type of relationship with Tony than I did with Jeff. Jeff was a rock star with a great sense of humor, a cut-up, and there were certain aspects of his personality that I really fit with. Other aspects were diametrically opposed, like all of my classical roots and training.
So I had all this tremendous respect for Tony as a pianist and composer, and we would talk about a lot of stuff. I noticed every morning he’d wake up and be playing Debussy preludes and what have you, before we’d start recording. I thought to myself, man I’ve pretty much made a career out of a little bag of drum tricks. And that I really haven’t got this full-blown, all-encompassing approach that one would have towards a keyboard instrument or a violin, for the drums. It’s genre based. So really, that’s when I began practicing again, and fooling around with the ostinatos and all the things I’m doing now.
So this relationship we had was special. And one day in the early ’90s, after "Guitar Shop," he called me up and had this particular gig in Europe where his drummer couldn’t make the show and he asked me to sit in with him. So I did, and it was with Tony and other people who became members of the Lonely Bears, with strings and winds and a guitarist and all these American Indian musicians. And that’s when we started talking about doing a project.
So we did four albums over there in the course of about two years. I lived in Paris. We lived pretty cheaply and didn’t make much dough but it was art for art’s sake. One album was completely improvised, it pretty much runs the gamut of some esoteric material. Mainly written by Tony. I helped arrange and produce it. I’m proud of that stuff. Pete Morticelli from Magna Carta bought the license and now they’re going to be available in the states for the first time, so that’s great.
DRUM!: I actually remember seeing you in San Francisco with The Knack. After all the ostinato clinics, that seemed like quite a departure. How did that come together?
Bozzio: It was a session at first. I had talked to Doug Fieger on the phone, and he’s a really sweet guy. They had a very small budget, and there was a question of was it worth it for me to do. But it turned out that I had the time, and I figured what the heck, I’ll just go in and slam this out. And in the course of making the album, we laughed a lot and had a really good time. And I was impressed with the professionalism of the group. We pretty much did that record after rehearsals in one take, each song. I figured, it’s not the most complex music. It doesn’t really relate to my history as a drummer, but on this level as a performer, like the Beatles-- I dig these guys. Because they’re not phony.
Then they started talking about a tour, so I considered it, it looked okay, and I decided to do it. Then when I got to LA I realized that none of the things that were supposed to be set up for the tour had been done, and what we were embarking on was a really badly-routed and badly-thought-out tour. In a van, 10-hour drives on a show day, staying at Motel 6s. I just said, "Doug, I do this in a truck all the time. I know what you can do and what you can’t do, and you can’t do this. Somebody’s going to get sick or burnt out. It’s really impossible."
And he told me that we couldn’t pull out because guarantees had been gotten and blah, blah, blah. And I said, "We should pull out and consider putting the onus on the record company to work a single, get some airplay, get some TV shows that we thought we were going to get, so we can go out and do this on a level that’s not just...stupid." So, he wouldn’t listen to me, and became a little bit obsessed with it.
So we went out. Two weeks in, he lost his voice. I got sick as well, and I had a European tour coming up on the tail end of that. We were in la-la land from day one.
And it was really sad because, I hate to say I told you so, but after going to the same places and theaters and doing 400 people on my own in a drum clinic months before-- we go back to these same places and there would be like 75 people. 25 people. It just was not promoted. Rhino is a reissue label, not a record company that knows how to work a band that’s alive and kicking. I think they sold them a bill of goods and didn’t really follow through with the promotional things that they said they were going to do. They take records and compilations of bands that have a history, and so their fans will find these, stumble on them and buy them and they’ll make money.
So it turned out to be a drag. There were some bad feelings between me and Doug, which I don’t know if they’ve ever been resolved, but I had to just let go of it. And I feel bad about it, but on the other hand I had my health and my sanity to think about. So that was that. Doug and I have spoken and there’s no hard feelings, but the way it happened was unfortunate. It had the potential to be a fun and money-making opportunity for me, and it’s important for me to have fun and be with people who are nice, if I’m going to make money.
Ed. Note: This is an interview from circa 2000, that first appeared on drumstuff.com. Look for part II here.