The interview below is with Iain Ballamy, jazz musician and co-founder of Earthworks, for his spoof column called ‘In the Psychiatrist’s Chair’ which ran for several years in Jazz UK magazine. This was never printed as the magazine hit hard times, but it seemed worthy of posting on my website on the grounds that it might make you smile!
Bill Bruford is an interesting case study. Having studied economics (and found it rather boring) he took up the drums and rapidly went on to become a prog-rock legend in the ’70s after touring with Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. Bill later answered a calling to his latent musical love – Jazz – and formed a ground-breaking group in 1985 called Earthworks with three budding young British jazz prodigies and a very scary and temperamental electronic drum kit. He toured the globe for a further 23 years before writing his autobiography and hanging up his sticks for what should be a peaceful retirement.
But alas no, something’s bothering him……..the meaning of life!
Hello Bill, please make yourself comfy. Last time you were here you were still a man of the road but this time you are back as a student – kindly explain what on earth is going on?
This chair’s a bit threadbare isn’t it? I’m at the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences at Surrey University doing postgraduate research in musical creativity with particular reference to drummers. I know, I know – shouldn’t take long, then – ha,ha. Actually, it should result in a 70,000 word thesis, and it might take 5 years.
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?”
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.
Not unlike Bernard Cribbins in Fawlty towers who “ordered omelette but then I changed my mind” I notice you have changed your mind quite frequently and made some remarkable shifts of direction – from student to rock star, rock star to Jazz icon, Jazz icon to writer and writer back to student. You have come full circle! Are you likely to do the whole thing all over again in a shorter time frame or will you stay retired and contemplate further?
True! Round in a circle, only this time something about not recognising the place I started out from. You’re very perceptive, Doctor. Will flattery get me anywhere? No, thanks, I’m not going round again. How much more of this is there?
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. I love mythos (and logos), ceremony, ritual, and singing the Anglican songbook, and all in the oldest and most beautiful building in town. The writer Karen Armstrong is very strong on this.
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 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 (we live in a Notspot). 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.
What have 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 ducks 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. We drummers know that – don’t you?
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 the all-pervading generic popular music genres which deploy an “ever diminishing selection of beats and tempi” which allow for very little in the way of creativity?
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 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, is all.
So in 70,000 words time when you have finished your Ph.D. on why you did what you have done with your life, what next? A trout farm perhaps?
I thought I might look at psychiatry.
Bill it’s been a pleasure to see you. You are certifiable for sure but I think some very interesting soul searching and research will bear fruit and we look forward to the results with baited breath (whatever that is?)