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Terry Bozzio talks about drums, Zappa and his upcoming trip to Little Rock

Terry Bozzio is bringing Little Rock a really impressive show on September 30th, 2014. “An Evening with Terry Bozzio” will take place at Juanita’s in the River Market and will be a solo musical performance on the world’s largest tuned drum and percussion set. Bozzio is one of the greatest drummers in the world, and was a member of Missing Persons, UK, and Frank Zappa’s band. He’s also played with musicians like Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Robbie Robertson and Steve Vai. Visit www.terrybozzio.com for more information on his tour and his career. Bozzio talked to Examiner’s Jerry Tucker about drumming, Frank Zappa, the upcoming Little Rock show and more.

Terry Bozzio's massive drum set
Andre Ozga

The following is a transcript of the interview:

JT-I’m on the phone with Terry Bozzio, and Terry will be at Juanita’s in Little Rock on September 30th. This is a must see if you’re a drummer, drum teacher, student or if you just like hitting things in general. What can we expect from the show Terry?

TB-Well, you can expect a lot of hitting. Yeah, but that’s just a means to an end. I have probably the world’s largest tuned drum set. I have eight bass drums tuned to different piano notes and half my drum set is the white notes of the piano and the other half is chromatic which is the black and the white notes. I play bass lines with my feet and grooves with my feet that identify a bass part and then I solo against it melodically and rhythmically on top. I think it’s something that nobody else is doing. It’s like a complete musical event but on drums. There’s really nothing you can compare it to. There’s, of course, great drummers that we all know, and probably better ones then me, but nobody is doing what I’m doing. I have MIDI triggers that reinforce the pitches I tune to so everybody will hear the melodies. My kit has a lot of ethnic percussion and I take from drumming from Africa or the Middle East or Japan, South America, the Caribbean…and incorporate that into my compositions and it’s also somewhat classical influenced because I studied a lot of classical music and I like that angle to my playing. It’s something like you’ve never seen before.

JT-What is the visual aspect of the show?

TB-The kit is like an abstract sculpture. It’s really quite beautiful. It’s a rack that isn’t used in a conventional way, so everything is supported to be where I need to hit it and then the back end of it has a rather sculptural, big, swooping rail that holds a set of tuned gongs and a real big Chinese gong. It in itself looks pretty damn cool if I may say so myself. And then I’m bringing along some artwork that I’ve done…some paintings and banners that will be my stage set and they’re pretty beautiful too. This is the first time I’ve ever been able to bring the whole package on my budget, and present myself as I wish to be presented. I’ve done a lot of work for Sabian and Drum Workshop who make my drums and cymbals. It’s been more of an educational event under the guise of a drum clinic. Now, this is a solo club or theater tour, depending on what town I’m in, and it seems to be selling really well. And with this art tie in that I’ve done with Scenefour, we have this project called Rhythm and Sketch. I’m bringing some….it’s a caricature of Frank Zappa that I sketched back in the seventies. He’s blended with photographs that they take of me playing the drums in a dark room with lit drum sticks in different colors. They use a slow exposure so it captures the stick movements. Of course, every drummer plays differently so the movements are different. And every drummer has a different drum set up, and mine’s very unique, so we’ve all been able to make some very unique art statements. I’m bringing the show on the road and I hope to find a welcome audience down there. I’ve had many great experiences over the years in Little Rock. I love coming down there. I love the people. So that’s what I’m gonna do and it’s gonna look cool and it’s gonna sound cool.

JT-One of the most important albums, personally to me in my lifetime has been “Sheik Yerbouti,” so I have to ask you what it was like to be a part of that and those tours.

TB-Frank Zappa, number one, I love and I’m eternally grateful for because he took me from nowhere. I was a well known jazz drummer in San Francisco with a classical training background. I think I was ready for the gig but no one would know who I am if it wasn’t for Frank. He took me from San Francisco and gave me world fame, the kind of credibility you can only get from having played with Frank. So I’m really grateful for that. And then, in terms of meeting him, he was a serious genius on about seven levels…guitarist, writer, humorist, bandleader, classical composer, and rock star…none of those things are easy to do. And he did them all, just fluently. From what I can remember, it was like marine boot camp for a musician. I was faced with the most challenging, through composed and written out, music I’d ever played. Things like “The Black Page,” “Approximate,” the “200 Motels” material we did with orchestra. Then he said to me, “Can you sing backup on this?” The part was in 5/4. He made me sing on top of me playing the drums in 5/4 time. He pushed me into developing characters, acting, and singing…doing all kinds of things I didn’t know that I could do. So I’ll be eternally grateful to him. In those days we recorded a lot live in New York, and I think “Sheik Yerbouti” was mainly a live record and possibly some things we did in the Record Plant. It was just a wonderful time for me. I can remember when I got with UK a year after I left Frank, being in Kansas City and “Sheik Yerbouti,” some tune came on the radio and just leapt out of the radio, gave me and Eddie Jobson a very nostalgic feeling for the days we spent with Frank.

JT-When you talk about being a jazz drummer at one time the other person that comes to mind is Ginger Baker. Was he a major influence to you?

TB-Yes, and Mitch Mitchell even more so. I thought those guys were really great drummers. My education went like this: First of all I played the drums with makeshift drum sets, pots, pans, bongos taken apart…all that stuff, and I used to listen to the Beach Boys and surf drum music, Sandy Nelson, the Ventures, and play along with them to records. My father also had a Tito Puente album that I loved. So I loved Latin music from an early age. Then I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and begged my father for a drum lesson. As a matter of fact, this July 15th is the celebration of my 50th anniversary of my first drum lesson. It was that important of an event that I had to remember the exact day. And I started out with a pair of sticks and a practice pad and I think by Christmas I got a snare and a high hat, then by the next summer he got me a full drum kit. Pretty much took six months of lessons, learned reading, stick control, the rudiments, basic beats and a book called “Syncopation” which was really good. Then I played in rock bands just through high school. At the end of high school those were the two main influences I had in drumming, Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker. Then I started to go into the music school system. I started to study classical and jazz in college and major in music, so I played with a few local symphonies and stuff. My heart was really in jazz. In classical music the drum set is not really a legitimate instrument. There’s only a few schools in the United States like North Texas State and Berkeley where you can major as a drum set player. Otherwise, if you go to a normal university, you’re probably gonna have to play mallets and tympani and things like that. I remember when I finished school I took a year off and I seemed to have turned pro quite readily. I was hired for some shows like “Godspell” and things like this. Did jingles. And one day the phone rang and the whole jazz world opened up to me. I started playing with Azteca, Eddie Henderson, Louis Gosca, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw…just some brilliant, some of the best cats in the world. Herbie Hancock disbanded his septet and Julian Priester and Eddie Henderson lived there in the bay area so Julian’s another great guy I got to play with. Then I heard about the Zappa thing and that’s when I got into that. I’ve had different influences at different times and they change according to where you’re at and what you’re interested in. Nowadays I listen a lot to…my favorite things are Miles and Weather Report, Joe Zawinul Syndicate…those two guys really are key because they were so broad in scope. They were both classically trained and made music that sounded like film music, electronic music, had ethnic percussion, was classically influenced and it was improvisationally focused. To me jazz can be sort of generalized as ding dinga ding-traditional jazz. To me jazz is freedom. It’s freedom with responsibility. You have to be really well trained as a musician and have an immense vocabulary and chops to be able to play jazz. So then it’s a matter of what do you do with that. Those guys did very unique, wonderful things with it and I feel they improvised in a compositional manner. You never heard scale patterns and trite playing to prove their prowess at their musicianship. You always heard really inventive soloing. So in my music, I have an ostinato bass, like a repeated melody…a bass line or a rhythm that I do a lot of times with my feet. And that gives you the tonal center. Then I try to improvise. I have certain melodies that I’ll always play and I try to improvise in a compositional manner so it’s not just throwaway stuff. I’m always thinking. If a melody comes out that I don’t know, I wasn’t planning, I’ll try and analyze that, retain it, repeat it, develop it, and use it so that it makes sense, not just do a bunch of licks to impress people let’s say. So that’s my whole thrust. I think I take from ethnic percussion around the world, classical music and the improvisation of jazz and that freedom to create in the moment. That’s a magical thing that is a great American tradition that is really overlooked and not really respected for the genius that it is. I’m not a torchbearer or anything like that but I sure as hell have a passion for that and I’d rather be a poor person playing happily what I love to play and what I feel in my heart than be a rich person just doing a skilled musician job like keep the beat behind a famous singer or something.

JT-But then on a Rolling Stone list of the top drummers of all time, I saw where they had you at number five overall. And that’s without a supergroup…the other four where in a supergroup.

TB-I’ve played with some super groups. Jeff Beck is no slouch and Frank Zappa’s a genius and Missing Persons were pretty damn good too and UK was a great prog-rock band. I have a history and I’m very proud of what I’ve luckily been able to associate myself with and the legacy that’s there. You have to remember these polls are really arbitrary. I don’t put much stock in them. I put more stock in what a musician I respect says about me. Zappa one time stopped the audience from applauding after a drum solo that I did. Before the show, Zappa and I were talking about Stravinsky and Varese. It just reminded me of this classical aspect of my playing. So I went out there and I did a solo that was kind of in that vein. You always get a standing ovation for a drum solo at a rock concert, that’s like a given. He stopped the audience from applauding and he said, “You know folks, that was not a drum solo. That was a piece of music.” Something like that means way more to me than being number five in Rolling Stone’s arbitrary best drummers of all time. You could take a genre and say…I say for rock and roll I love John Bonham, I love Mitch Mitchell and I love Ginger Baker. That’s in rock. If you’re thinking about big band drummers, heck, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, just so many guys I can’t even name that were brilliant, brilliant big band drummers. Then if you’re talking about progressive jazz, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham…Billy Cobham’s done things that I don’t think any human has surpassed yet. And he did them back in the seventies. So I don’t believe much or give much credence to that but it certainly helps promotion and I’m very grateful that I’m mentioned on those lists. Another example, Modern Drummer, the leading drum magazine in the United States, they gave me an award in their reader’s poll for ‘best up and coming drummer’ when I was in Missing Persons. So that means they didn’t even know about me in Zappa or UK, and they just found out about me when I was in a pop band, Missing Persons. Then I never won any other reader’s poll award and they didn’t know what to do with me and one year they just gave me the hall of fame award. So I went from best up and coming to hall of fame. What’s more important is just being able to live and play every day and get to do what you love to do and share it with people.

JT-How long has it been since you’ve been in Little Rock?

TB-Not sure I was there with Zappa plays Zappa but I know I’ve done clinics and performances there like three or four times in the last twenty five years. Before that I was there with Zappa and probably with UK and Missing Persons as well. I can’t recall the last time I was there. It might have just been a clinic at a store or some little club or something. But I love it. I love the river front, river walk there.

JT-And it’s grown quite a bit too.

TB-We see that growth thing everywhere.

JT-I’m excited. Can’t wait to see you.

TB-I’m very grateful to be able to speak with you too and I thank you very much, it’s an honor.

JT-Thank you very much. Terry Bozzio, Juanita’s in Little Rock on September 30th.