By Jamie Dull
In The Loop Magazine got a chance to talk with legendary drummer and iconic beat master, Terry Bozzio. From his early days with Frank Zappa, through Missing Persons and solo career, we chat with him about it all. Below is our in-depth and thorough chat about all things drum in his life.
To witness his greatness in person, be sure and check him out live, right here in Chicago on Monday night at City Winery.
Jamie Dull: Thank you very much for your time and for speaking with me today.
Terry Bozzio: Thank you for helping promote the show.
JD: So first off, how has the tour been going?
TB: Well financially it’s pretty rough, but other than that it’s fine. Sometimes I feel like a one man crusade against the devaluation of music in America and culture in the arts, but I’m doing the best I can and I’m starting to play pretty good as of the last couple weeks in terms of my own personal satisfaction. The crowds have been ok and we’re bumping along. Today I’m looking forward to it because I’m playing a performing arts center here in Omaha. The City Wineries have been great venues too. But if I had my brothers I think with just a little bit of the correct marketing, I’d like to be almost exclusively in small theaters. You know, to me it’s like a church for music. You can sit down and really give yourself to the performance and be comfortable with good surroundings and a clean, quiet atmosphere.
JD: Definitely. So have you found it easier or more difficult to tour as a solo artists versus being in a full band?
TB: Umm. I don’t know. All I know right now is this is what I want to do. And I think that the level that I’m at in the business, you know, I’m very grateful to be where I’m at and be able to play. That’s really the bottom line for me. Survival and being able to play. And you know, I think in different territories its different. Japan and Europe seem to have a little more cultural education and so the crowds have been a little more big and enthusiastic, and the places I’ve played seem a little more classy.
In America we’re in this awful situation, and you know, I hardly get any royalties anymore because music is just stolen from the internet. People YouTube me and crap and then, they probably don’t want to see me after seeing a friendly posted YouTube video, so I’m constantly having to take those down. But yet in America there are some places that are just gorgeous to play. Probably at the top of my list is the musical instrument in Phoenix. I love that place, and that’s a good example of a guy who made a lot of money with Target, making something into a benefit to culture and mankind, and those of us who play and enjoy music.
So yeah it really depends upon the place, the territory, the booking agents and connections and stuff. I don’t really have that much control over where I play. I put out parameters and I accept what I can. If it’s really low, or I had a bad experience at a place then I usually don’t play there again.
JD: Understood. And regarding that, what role has the city of Chicago played in the development of your career?
TB: Yeah. The first time I ever went to Chicago was with Zappa and I had a fantastic experiences with him and every other band I’ve played with. It’s a great music town. And then from the time I started playing solo drums, doing clinics and stuff, you know I think one of the largest selling clinics I ever did was in Chicago. Then, Victor Salazar who created Vic’s Drum Shop has been a fantastic promoter for so many things. We’ve been friends for many many years and he’s helped me so much with getting me into beautiful theaters and wonderful places to play and promoting the Hell out of it. He’s helped me generate big crowds. So yeah Victor is probably one of my best friends and also a big supporter of my success in Chicago. If I owe it to anybody, it’s him.
JD: I’ve read many times that Frank [Zappa] encouraged you quite a bit when you were younger. Was his support a big part of your career path?
TB: Yeah. The clinic scene gave me a chance to develop what I do. I played a one man show at the Palace theater, now called The Avalon in Hollywood. Frank was sick at the time and I went up to visit him after and he said that his wife and kids really enjoyed the show and that it took big balls to do that and that he was proud of me. You know, that’s one of the moments you can really count on one hand when you get a very sincere compliment from Frank, who was very critical and really smart, you know, a genius on seven levels.
I wasn’t ever looking to be accepted by him and the moments I have where I gained his acceptance were very meaningful to me and very encouraging. I played him some stuff and he liked the more abstract stuff I did. I remember one time we did a Polycount record. I think it was that same night after the Palace gig, I played for him ‘City of the Dead’ which is basically a kind of a piece of percussion and junk, and he really liked it. I always liked to make something creative. I don’t think I really started to seriously compose until around that time when I was 40. I’ve composed all my life and kept things, and even developed things I’ve done in college into something now.
Frank was great. Connections through him were great. Gail introduced me to Nicolas Slonimsky the musicologist, and that was a fantastic experience. He was very inspiring to me. I wrote a piece called Six Miniatures because he did a series of 50 miniatures, and that’s kind of dedicated to him. Some great experiences I’ve had and little by little I’ve come to the realization that everything Frank told me was the truth, whether I wanted to believe it or not. You know, I was young and naive or in denial. But he really was a special, special human being.
JD: When you began recording with Frank was it challenging in the beginning? Or were you comfortable with him right from the start?
TB: He made me comfortable right from the start. He made me realize I could do things I didn’t think I could do. I think the first recording situation was mostly live. Most of the stuff I’ve done with Frank was recorded live on stage. Let me think, the first thing I recorded in the studio with him was at the Record Plant in Los Angeles for parts of the Zoot Allures album, and he had done some tracks with a Roland Rhythm Ace.
That was the first time I learned I could play with a click track of sorts, as he played along with it. After that there was the orchestral favorites. He would give me music beforehand and I would shed it. I kind of owned it. Some of the other guys would come in and sight read, they were capable of doing that, but I had lived with the music for a while. I was able to nail that, so it was a fantastic learning experience.
JD: With that in mind, what are some of the major differences between some of your recording sessions with Frank in the early days compared to recent recording sessions for the Composer Series?
TB: I did the Composer Series on the computer, wherever I went. Frank could make perfect recordings with great sound of stuff that was impossible for humans to play. For me I wanted to take a more organic approach, but you know, all of your experience comes into play when you’re composing. I had been composing just for myself, and people would say I played so orchestrally, and wondered if I thought about having someone write a piece for me for an orchestra. And I thought, I don’t want someone else to write that [laughs]. You know I finally had made an overhead chart of my drums and what pitches the cymbals and toms were tuned to, and what have you. And I started to compose just with what I had for my solo drumming. That’s how the Chamber Works came about. That was when I was around 40. I got a chance to record a midi version for myself, and then with a sixty piece orchestra.
The original concept was five woodwinds and five strings. You just down note and then say to yourself “what’s the next logical note?” , or you put down a melody that you’ve played and then you realize “Ok, when I’m playing the drums, that’s all there is. That’s enough, so what can I do with this?” Then you realize that could be an inner voice or a harmony or a bass line, or a top line melody.
The possibilities just open up. You know you saw the compositional techniques there are, and a little bit of inspiration that I can’t take credit for, and you start putting one thing in after another. Half the stuff I’ve written was written when I was half asleep watching the David Letterman show when some boring actress was on talking about herself. I would just mute the TV, look over to the computer and start plugging in notes. Then the next morning you go “Wow, I like this”. I’d almost forget what I did, and then it would inspire me to go on and do the next thing. That’s what I do. Just kind of follow my own little thing. I never thought I’d release this unless I got the money to do it myself. I found this record company, Ward Records who was interested in doing it. They still have a music business over in Japan. So I was able to get an advance and put out a real thing. And now it’s available on Ward records and of course iTunes. I guess the cool thing I was able to do with the Composer Series is combine my artwork with it. Each movement has a little painting to go along with it, which of course you can’t get on iTunes.
JD: That’s so cool that you’ve included a visual that. You give the listener a visual element to go along with the music, but it’s also your perspective which I think makes it very unique.
TB: And that all started with Captain Beefheart thanks to Zappa. He first toured with us and was an artist and encouraged me to do it myself. He was always carrying around pads of paper and markers, so I did the same. He would say “Oh I really like this. Its loose or its free”. So I kind of tended to go in the abstract direction.
JD: When you began Missing Persons did you have a vision in mind? Or an ultimate goal for the project?
TB: Well I knew I wanted to something that was not like UK. We were getting compared to ELP and Yes, which are two bands I never listened to or really cared for, although I appreciate their musicianship, but you know it was not my thing. I was always into jazz stuff, later Miles [Davis] and Weather Report, or classical Stravinsky or something. That stuff didn’t really fit into my scheme of things. When we got compared to dinosaur rock bands and all that stuff, it didn’t sit well right me at that time, 1979, which was sort of the birth of Punk and New Wave. So I wanted to do something more modern, and that’s what we tried to do.
We got some really good players and tried to make some interesting music and we put Dale in front. For what it’s worth we had our fifteen minutes. It was kind of like a Pollini movie. It just couldn’t last. You’ve seen all of the behind the music situations in Spinal Tap, and that’s kind of what it was like. There’s nothing that can prepare you for fame and for the music business at any point in history [laughs]. You know what I mean? You end up beached somewhere and realize your motives are kind of messed up. I mean, we were trying to be a pop band and that precludes that you’re popular, so we stayed within a very narrow universe of possibilities. It seemed to work, and then it didn’t.
To me as soon as Def Leppard and Michael Jackson were on MTV, guys who could really sing and really play, there was no contest. Everybody didn’t like what we were doing. So I ended up just bumping around, doing some sessions, things like that, and then somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I was trying to do solo projects and be like Phil Collins by the mid-eighties. And nobody liked my voice even though I got $10,000 to do one song for Virgin. And other deals like that had Ken Scott produce it, but no bites. And at that point just out of depression and the meditation process I started practicing again. Thinking “Oh God, here’s this complicated drummer. If I practice I’ll really alienate people”. But the clinic area gave me an opportunity to grow in that direction. And now I’m just doing that without the support of the companies.
JD: How did the film Lunch Wagon play into the development of the band?
TB: Yeah you know Zappa was good enough to loan us his studio. He had just built this studio in his house and one night we were up in his kitchen and somebody, maybe Gail mentioned Ken Scott as a producer. So Zappa said “Hey, if you can get Ken Scott, why don’t you bring him up here? You can test out my studio, get all the bugs out since he’s a really good engineer. And then when I come back off the road, the studio will be up and running and you can get a little demo out of it.” So, from that we got involved with Ken Scott, cut the record, and we didn’t even have a name yet. We called ourselves US Drag which ended up being the name of a tune. So even with Ken’s power and connections in Hollywood, nobody would sign us so we went independent and released our own little 45” EP, and he said statistics are showing that it takes about four weeks for a single to get imbedded into the public’s mind, but radio stations are only playing singles for two weeks. So we said why don’t we take this movie, we had been offered to do a bit part in a movie and play a couple of tunes, and that just might be the little bit of publicity that we need to get us over the hump.
So what happened was, we did this movie, it was a cheap stupid movie, and we forgot about it. We built ourselves up from a grassroots effort, playing around town, going to number one on three different radio stations independently. So we became famous and then the movie, at the height of our fame comes out, featuring the music of Missing Persons [laughs]. So that’s how it came out. We were a little bit embarrassed by it at that time, but you know, it is what it was. It’s a learning experience and I did the best I could with what I had at the time. I’m pretty proud of everything I’ve done.
JD: Awesome. Let’s fast forward to today with the Composer Series. I have a couple more questions about what you’ve done and your career path, and then we can wrap it up.
TB: My first response to that is what career path? [laughs]. I’m kind of just “take it all as it comes”. There’s things I’d like to do, but I’ve found that pretty much anything that I try to will to happen doesn’t happen, but if you just kind of let go and let things fall into place, somehow I end up being able to do the right thing or the right time.
JD: The Composer Series covers a lot of sonic ground. How do you feel that having released this, getting it out into the world, will influence your future work?
TB: Well I think it already has. I’ve probably got enough for another record in the can, and my website is being redeveloped so I should be able to stream my own stuff in a month or so. You know it’s like my art or my drumming. I do the same thing every night, but different. And that’s really all I can say about it. I’m not going to limit myself in ways to compose or how I should record. You just do what you can with what you’ve got at the moment. I have great samples of my drums and I try to program them pretty much how I want to play them, try and make it feel natural even though its programmed. Then I have tricks I use. Certain things are live and others are a little bit more quantized, depending on what the piece calls for to make it looser or not, and then there’s the field recordings and found sounds, and the atmosphere they create or what you might do to compile most of that to create a collage like siren or orchid. The flute stuff, I have a bass clarinet. I haven’t really recorded anything on that yet, but I’m learning how to control that beast and fool around with bass clarinet and flute. But I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m going, and I don’t care where I’m going. As long as I can just do it. Then it becomes like a crossword puzzle. Once you’ve got that one word in there it has to fit vertically and horizontally. And you know it’s the same thing with music. You just chip away until the puzzle is complete.
JD: And you were the sole musician on the Composer Series right? So the ‘Six Miniatures for Guitar & Piano”, that’s you on both guitar and piano?
TB: Yeah, one note at a time. I wrote it on a midi-graph and just, one note at a time you work it in. Play a little phrase and then go “Where’s the next place that wants to go?”. You hear it in your head, you find the note on the keyboard and start from there. You have to study composition to understand that things can be done backwards and forwards and upside down, inverted, but it’s mainly just an inner valid intuitive thing. Where do you want to go? Ok this is busy, or this needs some space, or this is too much space so now I want to put more notes in there or something. It’s all about contrast. High, low. Fast, slow, thick or thin or what have you. And it’s the same with improvisation. You try to improvise in a compositional manner. You don’t just do some stupid lick you’ve been practicing, scale form exercises or something.
The last time I saw Michael Brecker before he died he was approaching complete mastery. And looking at Slonimsky’s books which had every permutation of one note to another categorized. You try and break up these motifs or sections and mix them and match them so that its surprising. The guys who inspired me never played the same thing twice, like Miles [Davis] or Sam Rivers is another one who really could turn things around and not repeat himself. Wayne Shorter, Coltrane may have studied Slonimsky’s books. And I don’t know why, but those are my heroes. The guys who were the most meaningful to me.
Someone once asked [Igor] Stravinsky “How do you compose?” and he said “I compose by an act of delectation”. I looked that word up and it means to find delight in [laughs]. So you can imagine him on a slightly out of tune upright piano with quieter strings so that it wasn’t loud because, you know, in those days it was entirely possible for another composer to overhear your ideas and steal them. So he was just privately sticking his hands on the piano until he decided “Ah yes I like this chord”, and then you know something like ‘The Right of Spring’ comes out of that. And then he said “I also compare it to the act of a pig foraging for truffles”. You know you stick your nose in the dirt until you find something that smells good. And when a giant like that brings it down to that level, it gives you the encouragement you need to just go your own way. Because I’m not Stravinsky, I never will be. I’m not Zappa, you know. I’m just Terry. And where does Terry live? Somewhere deep inside. So I just let that come out and try to make something out of it without worrying about techniques or rules or any of that stuff. Just do it, you know. As long as it doesn’t burn or get deleted, you know, then somebody will find it someday and I will have left something that I think is beautiful.
You know you listen to this stuff over and over and you become acclimated to it, and it becomes something that you like. And that’s why I choose to release it. If it’s something that I just can’t get anywhere with, even if I think this could be a hit, I just drop it and it doesn’t get developed. There are things I’ve kept over the years and then someday I might pull up a program of some tune that I’ve done and I go “Wow, I know what to do with this now”.
JD: I’ve found that your song titles in the Composer Series are fascinating. I’m curious as to where some of these song titles came from. Specifically ‘Music for Idiots’, ‘Cityscape’, and the three postcards from Japan.
TB: Yeah you know I married my Japanese wife Mayumi who I’m so happy with, she’s been so supportive. I live part time in Japan at her house, so I’ve been always very influenced by Japan. Since I guess the 70’s or so. I’ve come to appreciate so much of their culture. So I thought three postcards from Japan because I started to write something that had that vibe to it. Ukiyo-e is the Japanese woodblock paintings which were a collaborative effort between the artists who drew it initially and then a wood carver who would carve an identical duplicate of the painting and then a person who controlled the ink part for the printing and the several woodblocks that were overlaid on top of a piece of paper with little guide posts to make sure it all lined up, and then a publisher who put it out on something like a postcard or something.
So this art I really liked and the song seemed to have that feel to it, so I thought why don’t I do three postcards. Three experiences from Japan. The next one was the Matsuri which is like a summer festival, which is like my impression of a street fair in Japan. Then the next one was the haiku which is the Japanese poetry system of having five syllables, then seven, then five. It really has to be meaningful and there can’t be any repeats and it’s got to be the best possible way to do it. I’m not a haiku artist, but I wanted to use the phrase 5, 7, 5 in the melody that flows over time. So the string melody, the first one is five notes, the next one is seven, and then the third one is five.
It just seemed to make sense to me. I loved the Stravinsky’s Right of Spring and then I got a recording of it and read the liner notes and found out that it was part ballet and this whole storyline and mythology that went along with it about sacrifice and spring and rebirth and this kind of stuff, it made it more meaningful. I try to put what’s evocative in the music to me, I try and put that out there in terms of titles and imagery, or implication towards the listener. But as I say in the liner notes, music is fine by itself. It doesn’t need any explanation. All of these things were written with the date that I started composing it. I’d be just as happy leaving it with the date and letting the listener make up their mind. There’s some sort of commercial compromise I guess, so I sort of titled the after the fact. ‘Cityscapes’ is just a crazy program sound in Reason.
It started to do that, and I liked what it did so I made the piece out of that. It just seemed busy and hustling, you know, traffic lights at night and stuff. And music for idiots, I was like “Why am I doing this? No one is going to listen to this.”, I was going to put in parentheses “not you, you idiot” [laughs]. It’s like, if you’re listening to it, you’re not an idiot. But no one is going to listen to it, so who cares [laughs]. It has that sort of Stravinsky-esque foolish kind of dance section to it, so that’s where it was, and somewhat a call back to Zappa and his wonderful, sharp tongue.
JD: Great! What advice would you give to teenagers who are learning to play 90 to 100 minutes of Zappa music?
TB: Well it really all depends on what your intention is as a player. That’s a very specific compartment of my playing and my being. In my case with Zappa he was the conductor and I was the guy in the orchestra. Whatever he wanted, went. If it was specific I’d read it and play it note for note. And if it wasn’t, I was making up parts. If he liked it, it stayed. And that was me, with his approval.
When it comes to that sort of classical discipline, you want to try and make it as perfect as possible and put some feeling into it. Own it and make it yours. Zappa was always talking about, you know style it, or smear it. Do something to it. Now you’ve got the notes. He would always say “Put the eyebrows on it.”, you know, referencing his big bushy eyebrows. Give it your own style and character.
JD: At what point in your life did you feel like you could comfortably call yourself a professional?
TB: Being a professional does not have a very high standard. I think by the time I finished college I was calling myself a professional because I was, you know. I was making a living playing music. So that was around 1972. I got a gig with Godspell, I played some little classical things with local symphonies, I would do commercials and jingles and then I began jamming with the great jazz players in San Francisco, and they liked me so I’d get those gigs, and then Zappa came. I mean I only made $400 per week when I played with Zappa and got paid union scale for maybe 10 of the records. Now that there’s more than that out there, I should probably get a lawyer and look into it [laughs]. It’s very difficult to make a living in music these days. All it takes is somebody paying.
Of course the headspace for the young musician is whatever the guy who is paying you says, is right, but that’s all [laughs]. Just for that situation, he’s right. You go into the studio, this guy wants that, he’s right. But when it comes to developing your own individuality, that’s something that came later. I wouldn’t say that mine came until 1979 or 1980 with UK and Missing Persons. It took me until around the time I was almost 30 to say “this is an original idea where I’m starting to compose linear melodic parts”. I really think kids should understand that music is like learning the alphabet. You put small letters together to make words, and then you use these words to create a story, but with music. And they really need to know how to mix and match those letters and how to come up with something that is really interesting, or speak in metaphors as poets do to show us something maybe we didn’t think about. The way we teach is a very linear kind of way. My motives at a young age were, “I want to be rich and famous”. When I was in eighth grade said sit in at a graduation party and
I played ‘Boys’ by The Beatles and fifty people were standing around with their mouths open. And you kind of get the hint, well maybe I should do this because I’m not very good at sports, I’m not that popular, I’m not very smart, and I’m not very good looking, but when I played the drums, everybody liked it. So you twist that to the point where you end up being in Missing Persons trying to become famous and then you learn that money and fame are very inconvenient and very problematic. The best thing is to find something you really love to do and enjoy that process for the rest of your life. So if you enjoy learning, if you enjoy the curiosity of music and what can be done with it, and stop looking at it as something you have to do because someone says this is what you have to do to be a professional, you know, learn it because you’re curious about it and then I think you’ll have a much better creative sense and enable this inner voice to come out. These things are not taught and are not encouraged. We have a society that wants somebody to come out of college with a degree that will make them a slave for whatever discipline they’re in.
Pharmaceuticals, etc. Pharmaceutical companies put big money into medical schools so that they can get this guy out of it. And that’s the way our society works. I started teaching ostinatos at my clinics thinking that next year everyone will know because I’m teaching them just how bonehead simple this is to do, but nobody would take the time to do it, and now 25 years later I’m alone doing this, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing [laughs] but I’m happy doing what I do. That’s ok. Some guy could appear tomorrow and do it much better than me, and so be it, but right now I’m just happy to be who I am doing what I do.
JD: Having gone so far out, away from pop music with the Composer Series, do you find it challenging to go back to the basics and compose something that has to fit into a three minute window, as say pop music?
TB: I think it would be very easy. I’ve already done that. I have tons of tunes, maybe 30 tunes that I still think are great, and only because some jerk at a record company didn’t think it was great, it’s not out there. Or maybe the quality of my voice, which I would probably be on their side of that argument, but I still do sing. There are times that I think about that. “Ah I should take this song, and I should do a demo of it and send it to Nashville because it has that sort of country-rock thing to it and blah, blah, blah.” It just depends on the motivation at the time. If I’m really broke, maybe that’d be a smart thing to do. I had a friend, Stephen Bruton who died recently of cancer, who was a great musician with Bonnie Raitt and many of the others.
When I told him about this I said “I’ve got all these great little pop tunes and I was thinking this guy or this chick could sing this, blah blah blah, but I don’t have any connections in Nashville”. And he said well let’s get together and do that. And, ah, I never did. At the time I was getting a divorce and moving to L.A. again and all that junk, and then he died. That’s still in the back of my mind. There’s a lot of things I’ve written in that vein, and a lot of lyrics that I’ve written and a lot of spoken word poetry that I used in the Billy Sheehan project that are still, you know, you just write one word and that tells you what the next word is going to be.
You don’t know where you’re going. Then the end of the page seems to have some symbolic sense, and so whether somebody else gets it or not is not my business, but I got that out. It was coming from my subconscious, and that’s important to me. There’s many possibilities for anything. I’d love to do music for films. I think my music is great for film, but I don’t have the opportunity, or goesche to go and pitch myself to Hollywood. But my friend Patrick O’Hearn has been a very successful film scorer and composer. Somebody found him and said this music is what I want for my movie, and so then basically he’s good.
But I don’t think I can play the game and sell myself. Like Joe Solomon said, he was asked about doing music for films because his music is so cinematic, but he said “No, not for me.”. Too many people getting interfering in the process. People who don’t know what they’re doing, telling me what to do. Not for me. But at this point I’m open to anything. I feel qualified and competent to try anything that’s thrown my way because I don’t have to be a success. I can just try.
JD: This has been very wonderful speaking with you. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us at In the Loop Magazine. We’re looking forward to Monday!
TB: Thank you so much for this promotion. I’ll see you Monday!
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