This interview took place on the phone, so we didn’t do any video recording. I actually called him while I was at work. We spoke a few days after his gig at the Musical Instrument Museum in northern Phoenix, AZ. This was the second time I’d seen him perform live and it was even more mind-blowing than the first.
I think Terry is a genius. He’s invented all sorts of cymbals, drums, hardware, and electronics. He’s an incredible virtuosic drummer. He paints. He knows architecture and psychology. He’s toured all over the world. He’s a true artist. As I sat there watching him perform, I felt like I was watching Picasso paint a picture in front of my eyes and ears.
Thank you to Billy James at Glass Onyon PR for coordinating the interview.
Special thanks to Jack Rosenkrantz for his transcription of this interview. I am extremely grateful to Jack and his support of the site.
Here’s a video containing the audio and pull quotes from this interview:
Interview Audio (Podcast)
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Anthony: Hi, this is Anthony for MakeWeirdMusic.com and on the phone we have Terry Bozzio, the incredibly innovative musician, composer and drummer. Terry thank you very much for joining us, I appreciate that.
Terry: Thanks, I’m glad blushing doesn’t show up on the audio recording.
A: So I have been following you for some time and I just saw you out with your solo drum tour at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix for the second time, and it was just such an incredible show. Thank you so much for doing what you do and I really appreciate you bringing music and art to the stage.
T: Thank you, it is really my pleasure and I can’t say enough about that facility. It’s one of my favorite places in the world to go and check out and also to be able to play there in such a beautiful theater… So I was talking about how a theater is a church of music. I love the fact that my audience is above and can look down and see me and also be comfortable and in such beautiful surroundings to be able to give themselves to whatever comes out of me in the moment on that night.
A: So one thing that I picked up on is a real sense of inner peace and focus. I see a lot of musicians perform and I don’t see them so attuned to what they’re doing and focused in the moment. It seems like a lot of what you do, particularly with ostinato work, is a meditative practice. Can you talk about your approach to stress and anxiety while performing as a musician and some of your meditative practices on the instrument?
T: Well yeah, I think that’s a good description, and I should say before we start that that’s the only place in my life where I have that kind of peace. [Laughter] You have a strength in one area and gaping deficits in other areas of your life. But I do my best to try and take that kind of zen attitude of just being who I am. I can’t be better than I am in the moment and be in the moment.
We can get into that I guess to begin. With the ostinato, it’s like a meditation, it’s like a mantra, and so what happens–I believe, I’m not a practitioner or PM specifically–but I believe there is this entrainment phenomena that happens that puts you in this altered state and the mind kind of abhors a vacuum so it kicks you into this imaginative sort of thinking and space.
And on top of that is where insight and these kind of things things come, so in holding an ostinato it sort of kicks you into this creative space and then because it’s a repeated thing, the contrast against that and that sort of intuition that comes from that is the creative part and that would be the melodic aspects and the improvisation that happen over it.
And as far as I’ve read and understood, which is not much, Jung talked about man’s fivefold psyche. Psyche means soul . Your soul is made up of your intellect and your emotions and your physical body and your intuition. And then he talks about the fifth element being the divine, or you know, that that’s outside of us that holds this whole thing together. The energy in between the matter that makes us who we are and things as they are so when you think about these psychological types and aspects, all four of them–well plus the divine, you have to accept that part because that’s reality, but all four of those aspects have to be somewhat in balance.
You have to be physically able to perform. You have to be intellectually aware and keyed into what’s happening with an idea that just kind of comes out of subconscious and you play it. You can’t just go, “Wow that was great!” You’ve got to be paying attention in order to repeat it and develop it and do something with it that makes sense. And then emotionally you have to play with feeling but you can’t get too emotional and overactive in that area. And then you have to play with this openness and an intuitiveness that allows for something to come through that isn’t what you necessarily planned and kind of go with that. So to the best of my ability that’s that’s how I describe the feeling of playing and being on stage.
I’ve seen a lot of drummers play who are good examples of each one of those aspects but maybe out of balance. There’s a physical animal who’s just faster, stronger than anybody but once you’ve seen five minutes of fast and strong that’s all there is. And there’s emotional guys who are capable of playing with great feeling, but God forbid if they get in a fight with their girlfriend before they go on stage and then they can’t play. And there’s the intellectual who can read fly specs but if you estimate the feeling he can’t do that.
And then there’s the intuitive who might play something amazing one time, but not know where it came from not know what it was and not know how to repeat or develop it, and then be a very sort of inconsistent player where one night he’s touched by God and the next night he can’t play to save his life. So all of these things I have felt within myself and have tried to balance. That’s kind of the angle of what you do. And on a very practical and humble note, you just try and show up and do the best you can and let it go and live to play another day.
A: I imagine this is a thought process and the personal development that’s taken decades of effort. Have you always felt this way about performing on the drums or is this a recent evolution in your life?
T: I would say it’s from reflection and you don’t read Jung unless you’re in some kind of psychological pain, and I think is the touchstone of all growth. We don’t do anything until it becomes painful for us and we have to change. Our instincts are that strong and we don’t come out of the womb with this kind of a fully developed or growth oriented result. It just happens in life when you’re young you play a certain way; you have certain motives.
Like for me I wasn’t good-looking, I wasn’t good in sports, I wasn’t that smart, I wasn’t popular, but when I played the drums in eighth grade at a graduation party some band was playing and I got to sit in. The whole class of 50 people stood around me with their mouths open and applauded. When you get that sort of feedback I’m sure it’s like selfish and egotistical and you go, “Okay, well maybe this is where I can now share something with somebody else.””
These realizations don’t come until many many years later. First you have to practice and learn and go through the pain of that. It’s not always fun to just focus, especially for a guy like me with ADD, to just focus on these practice regimes that you have to learn and memorize. I suppose if your motives are “nobody will like me” or are fear-based like “I’ll never get a job,” “I will never be a drummer” if I don’t do this…
Motives are okay and they are what they are and they’re all okay if you are aware of them and know that everything is a growing experience. So you just follow whatever happens and I’ve been very lucky in my life to have had certain experiences that have made me curious or afraid of what not having what a dream or goal is, so I just sort of chip away at it. When we are young you play to impress people play maybe to impress a girl or to feel good about yourself or be rich and famous get material things, but after a while–and having had a little bit of success I found that was like a shipwreck and you will end up beached somewhere and nobody can prepare you for how you’ll handle any kind of fame–so now I try to live a private life and just live like a poor person–not bottom level poor but just a normal sort of frugal kind of life–Sorry I just had another thing, you still there?
T: Okay, yes, so, live like a poor person and have a rich inner life. One of the great artists and a teacher mentor of mine, Efrain Toro , who is a brilliant percussionist and multitalented musician and educator–he is many many things. He always says, “After food clothing and shelter, what’s the next thing?” And then he says, “People are curious.” And that’s what I found: you can have this rich inner life if you find something you love. It doesn’t become a painful thing to work towards it. I try and look at it like setting up my kit: it’s just an OCD nightmare like a checklist on 747. But that’s my instrument and I developed it to this point and every little nut and bolt’s got to be at the right place because if I’m playing and I want to do something and something’s not right, I mess up.
I focus on that and you’re bending and stretching and warming up as you as you go and then you are prepared to go out there and just be free. So a lot of the things didn’t come to me until I had crises of my own to go through and start looking for other ways of behaving and ways of being other attitudes in order to live comfortably and accept life on life’s terms.
A: And I’m assuming you’re happier now than you used to be as a result of these kinds of constraints that you set on yourself to be more pure inwardly and happy?
T: I suppose. I don’t know. Happiness, define happiness. Abraham Lincoln says most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be. So I don’t know if life is all happiness. There’s things you can change and there’s things you can’t change and you have to know what the difference between those things are and you after a while you start to say, “Okay, it’s not so important to be rich and famous and probably the best thing I do is to play the drums so let’s focus on playing the drums.”
There’s always been some impetus there. Some feedback, some payback I get from from doing this and be it peace of mind or sense of accomplishment or taking responsibility for yourself or the rewards of getting to perform, that are enough to enough to motivate me. And that’s that’s been a long process to get to that point for me and to cut out the extraneous stuff.
A: Can you can you talk about the connection between your art, the the painting art and the music and the physical drum set? I would imagine one thing influences another or one thing pushes another or takes away from another. How has art changed your drumming and your musical composition?
T: Well I think the element of space in my art is–I’m very influenced by Japanese calligraphy. I recently seven years ago married a beautiful Japanese woman Mayumi, my wife, and that was a great thing I’d been living part-time in Japan and just seeing the beauty of what would be the equivalent of 7-Eleven’s or any other sort of communicative signs are are beautiful to me over there. I don’t know what they mean but the shapes and the space is really great so there’s something that I’ve always liked about that. My mom liked Japanese art too and I didn’t know the difference until I had gone there in the 70s. So there’s subtlety and space. It’s this thing they call it ma , which is sense of space and that’s always been there in my art, in the good art.
When I first started doing this, I took art classes in high school but was never really good at it and I was okay at pottery and not very good jewelry, but that was all the techniques of perspective. It was more of a science and I could never relate to that. What I related to was just this natural space and how nothing in nature is straight, it’s all curvy and modeled. You look at rocks in the desert or trees and mountains and the ocean–it’s just constantly changing. So that kind of thing has influenced me.
I started seriously drawing–or pursuing it because I was curious and enjoyed it–when I met Captain Beefheart, Don van Vliet. He was a great fine artist and he encouraged me. The things he would say, like, “This is really free.” “I like this here.” But other things I’d show him that were more linear or had shading, he didn’t really respond the same way, even though pretty much everything I do is abstract. So I started to get a feeling for this looseness, something that doesn’t need to be, it just is. Like it is in nature. So I followed that and somehow developed my own style, which leaves this space and uses normally only one or two colors and some black and leaves the white space.
As I did this more and more and collected works that I’ve done over the years, I would look at my paintings and say, “I wish I could make music like that.” And of course, when it’s the beginning of the 80s and the new wave and the punk stuff is happening, that’s the opposite of space. It’s like density and rebellion and all that kind of stuff. So I think I have developed more of that sense of space. Another influence that way was some Miles Davis and Weather Report in the 70s. That music to me is still some of the best that was ever made. They had such a broad spectrum of influences that they brought into jazz that jazz was no longer “ding ding-ading ding-ading.” It was like film music.
It had a mood to it, it had ambience and everybody’s playing at the same time, nobody’s soloing but everybody is soloing and leaving space. Just these concepts I finally was able to develop myself and in my compositions and so I think it did influence me that way.
A: You have a very hands-on approach to building your sets, your drum set, your equipment.
T: Yeah that’s something that started from the very beginning too. When I wanted to be a drummer–I can remember back in the 50s black and white TV, I can remember the Little Ricky on the I Love Lucy show and Cubby O’Brien on the Mickey Mouse show were the first children I saw played the drums. That’s when I knew I wanted to play the drums.
My father had a great music collection and was an accordion player tremendous talent. He could silence the room. He was a child prodigy so when he played people begged him to play, he’d say, “No I don’t got it I anymore, haven’t been practicing,” and something like this. But then he finally played, and the power he had to draw everybody inside and make people cry when he played was a power that I was just envious of as a 4 to 6-year-old kid. I just wanted that.
So when I knew I wanted to play drums, he had a Tito Puente album and my mother and him had just bought some Heywood-Wakefield nesting tables, which were solid birch and three different sizes, so three different tones of wood the and they sounded like bongos to a kid. So I was playing on these three tables and telling my uncle, “Hey did you see my set of bongos?” I just pulled out these nesting tables and played the Tito Puente album.
So from there when I was ten, I got a set of bongos and the first thing I did was take them apart. I put the block that connects them on the floor and then angled one of the drums down shell tom and that was my tomtom. Then I took the small one and I put a piece of loose leaf paper over it with a rubber band and that sounded like a snare drum. I had a crumpled-up high-voltage sign from a telephone pole that I tied to a string to the inner screws that held it together so it wouldn’t break away when and I played with broken arrows from my archery set.
There was another thing I remember. We had a small like toy pool table that was about one, or I dunno 1’ x 2’ or something like that and I put–one of the innovations in the late 50s when MJB coffee came out with a coffee canister. It was a tin can that had a plastic top on it and when it was empty it sounded like tuned drums, so you’d get the different sizes of these coffee canisters and I put them on the pool table so they wouldn’t slip off and I would take the base off my globe, which looked like a cymbal, and put it in a wine bottle with another arrow from from my archery set suspended, and that was my drum set.
I would play along with The Beach Boys and surf drum music, The Ventures Sandy Nelson , all that. The Surfaris of course. So that was my way of getting into this kind of build-your-own sort of method.
And when I got my first drum set, one of the first first things I did maybe a year or two later, was–my brother was taking a metal shop class, I showed him the tom hole that had an an L-arm, which had a knurled quarter inch rod and said, “Can you make me this U-shaped arm that would fit on this bracket here so I can put another tom tom on there?” And so I’ve just been building and expanding ever since and I guess it’s just a natural thing for me.
A: Has your work–
T: I love architecture–
A: Oh cool.
T: Sorry, I love architecture and design, Mies van der Rohe , Breuer , and Le Corbusier and that was sort of their cold war steel furniture, with the black leather straps and stuff, was sort of the inspiration behind my my drum set in the second tour of Missing Persons where I got three patents where I invented this electronic drum kit that was just a wand, that came up from the floor in front of me and had 32 sound sources in it. And there were another couple of lines, one of them was short of short and angular and the other was long and high and curvilinear and it supported the cymbal bars up above my head. So I made this sort of Bauhaus abstract black sculpture and played that. So there’s always just been this thing with that. I always say I spend more time under the hood of my drum set than I do driving it.
A: One thing I love about your drum set is it looks like a piece of art itself.
T: Yeah, and there’s always been an art and beauty to drum sets. I was a jazz musician from my late teens or early 20s when I studied classical music and you go to the club and just sit there and you just look at the kit and wonder how that guy played and why he set up this way and that way and things like that. And so I think that my drum set became more sculptural the larger it got and when I went to a rack system with the tubes, I realized how much space the tripods took up on the floor that impaired you having more things to play with your feet. So that was one of the first things I realized, was I could add more bass drums, and different pitches and different sounds, different percussion instruments and I’m always fooling around like that.
The other thing I noticed was: why am I putting these beautiful round drums in this cage with straight tubes? So I got some curved tubes from DW and started to make more of a sculptural aspect. Once again the form follows function, it’s gotta wrap around the drums in a way where I could reach everything and it makes sense and then the backend is always abstract. I don’t like even, symmetrical things. I like things that are asymmetrical. I have a big gong high on the left so the rack goes up high and swoops down and was a little more horizontal for a rack of tuned gongs of which there’s 12 I think.
A: And has your interest in art and architecture and your personal development influenced the kinds of sounds that you want to get out of the instruments you design? I know a lot of the the components of your drum set wouldn’t have existed were it not for you and your design and I’m wondering about your inspiration for sounds and, and how that’s evolved over time given your personal hobbies and passion for architecture and art.
T: Yeah I think there is a correlation between all three disciplines. Stravinsky talks a great deal about him being an architectonic composer. I’ve read all his books. He’s this fascinating guy and an amazing teacher because he’s a giant in 20th-century music and you put these guys on a pedestal and he is capable of really some funny things he would say and also a really intense intellect and curiosity.
But, he at one point was asked “How you do you compose?” and he said, “I compare it to the the act of a pig foraging for truffles. You stick your nose in the dirt until you smell something that smells good,” and you can imagine him sitting–he would play on a slightly out of tune piano that was muffled with felt on the strings because in those days he didn’t want anybody to hear what he was working on or steal his ideas, so he worked very privately.
You just imagine him hunched over the piano playing a chord and then changing the fingerings and then having that “ah hah! these are the notes I want to work with.” And then you take those notes and take them apart sideways and upside down and backwards and what have you, and you make a piece like The Rite of Spring out of it.
Which boils down to basically a couple of–he mainly used octatonics , a diminished scale that goes whole step half step and it’s a very geometric scale. So all things apply to these as well.
I look at composing like a crossword puzzle. You have a horizontal line which is the timeline and then you have a vertical aspect which is higher and lower in pitch and then you have this vertical aspect where events are stacked on top of each other at points all along the timeline and that’s your harmony. And then there’s orchestration, which is what sounds–you play a rhythm on a little bell and has a different effect than playing the same identical rhythm and musical idea on a huge bass drum. So if you then get into combining sounds or choosing what sounds you want, you can have a lot of contrast.
And I think music is all about contrast between melody and harmony and dynamics in high pitch and low pitch and fast and slow and this combination of sounds, that combination of sounds, fast, slow, busy, sparse. All those kinds of things are the ingredients that you just mess around with. And if you can boil all that stuff–I would spend a lot of time, especially in the 80s and 90s, when I would be doing drum clinics or touring, there is nothing to do on a plane, we didn’t have the internet yet, I would read the Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music and look up something like “ostinato” and it would say see also blah-blah-blah and you’d go and follow that and then you identify these concepts it gets easy to sort of identify a kind of a list of concepts.
It’s about a paragraph of information of all music conceptually. And then you can take and use and encompass those concepts in your improvising and playing and in your musical expression. I think that’s my technique in a nutshell. Whenever I find a new idea I work out all the permutations of that idea and kind of encompass its concept and then we just put together the the little letters of that alphabet you found to make small words then the words into the sentence and then tell a story with music.
A: That is a great lead-in to your box set. I’ve listened to three CDs of the four and some beautiful, beautiful music. I didn’t get liner notes with my copy of it–Billy sent it to me and (Terry: ah great) I’m assuming it was all performed on your drum kit. Is that true?
T: No, no, no I sampled my drums and I composed everything the way I would play it on the drums. There may be a few things in there I can’t do like if you put certain little hi-hat rhythms or something together, I may not be able to physically have been able to coordinate that, if certain things that were happening at the same time. But for the most part it was how I would ideally want to play the drums to each thing or having played some things live just program in the beat that you played and then program your ideal fill at that point.
That’s why it’s called Composer Series , it’s not performer series. People see me play all the time and there’s enough recorded history there where they can see my style at different times, but they don’t know that quiet side of me. That’s something that you get to at this point in your life where you know you want to compose, you want to be more than what you are.
So I think it was around 40 I started to compose my chamber works stuff, based on some of my ostinatos that I was playing at the time. I just found it’s just this process of this crossword puzzle and you just keep keep chipping away at it. I enjoy the process and I enjoy the results of getting to program it in the MIDI and play the drums along with it and make a CD out of that and then getting to play it with the string quartet and woodwind quintet and piano with Alex Machacek and Gerald Preinfalk, and then getting to play it with a 60-piece orchestra with the Metropole Orkest in Holland. Once you get the bug, you just have to do it, so you just do it and it’s fun and it’s very rewarding.
The key thing is to not judge. When I was talking to a therapist, this woman was wonderful, I was always afraid of my how I was gonna make a living. And she goes, “Well how did you get the gig with Zappa?” Well the phone rang. “And how’d you get the gig with Jeff Beck ?” And I said the phone rang. She goes, “Don’t change your phone number.” So I haven’t.
The other thing she says is, “You have to look at the works as a MacGuffin .” and I said, “What’s a McGuffin?” and she said, “It’s something you do like fooling around in the garage building a birdhouse or whatever it’s just an experiment that’s only for yourself and then nobody’s gonna know.” And so once you have that sort of thing, it’s like, “This is who I am.”
You just put a few notes on and you’re all well that’s cool and maybe you don’t do anything with it, but then you discover it a year later and go, “Wow, I can do something more with this now,” because you’re a different person than you were a year ago and don’t have the same mindset or maybe the same blockages that you had at the time you stopped. So you just continue on with your new tools and your new attitude, you can complete things that you sort of dismissed. It’s like, “Ah well, I liked this at first but I never followed through with it.”
So this is that part of me, this is my private stuff, all my MacGuffins. I did this for myself and it’s another thing that we talked about earlier just the subconscious act of and the automatic act of automatic writing or automatic composing or automatic improvising without knowing what it is that you’re going to do. It takes preparation to have techniques to that but on the other hand, I did most of the composing of that whole box set kinda watching TV. Maybe watching David Letterman, let’s say. You’d watch his monologue which was funny to me at the time and then you have some actress on or whatever that I wasn’t interested in what she was saying so you reach over to the computer and start plugging in a few things during the commercials and whatnot and then you get involved and then you wake up the next morning and play it back and you go, “Wow this is good.”
That makes you feel like you want to do more with it. It’s that kind of a process of just following this unconscious thing. It’s almost like it happens in spite of you and that’s the real stuff, or at least what I think is the real stuff because no one makes music like that. Of course there’s influences. I think the true goal of any artist is to look inside find what is unique and authentic and beautiful that pleases you, and then to bring that out and share that with other people, and whether they like that or not, history shows us every damn artist that was great was hated and then became great when someone could sell his work after and not have to pay him!! [Laughter]
And then this guy Slonimsky that I mentioned earlier has this great book called The [Lexicon] of Musical Invective, which is all the worst reviews of the greatest composers since the time of Mozart or Beethoven . Debussy sounding like cat calls at a zoo or a riot at a zoo, which is scathing. And because the quote at the beginning of the book says that: most of man’s problems are based on his nonacceptance of the unfamiliar. And so that’s the whole concept. Whatever is new, until we get used to it, may be something that a close minded person would dislike, and expectations kinda supplant disappointment, so if you have an expectation the music should be this, and it’s not that, then most humans would be pissed off and non accepting of that.
I may not like all music, classical or critically acclaimed or new music as well, that’s maybe musique concrete , or something that’s hard to listen to or that I feel like I could improvise something more musical than that. But on the other hand you have to look a little deeper than maybe a mathematical formula and sound creation and synthesis of or something of merit there. There that was the artist’s focus, not what I was expecting to hear.
A: Well then that I would say kudos to you because as I was listening to the box set I it took me a while and I thought it sounds like his drumming which is so musical in and of itself.
T: Well yeah, it’s my samples man, my kit and the sounds are there and all that was sampled quite a while back in Austin, maybe 20 years old now. But it’s my drums, tuned to the way I like it. When you play drums–my solo drumming really is built to be played solo because the drums, drums and percussion are not specific pitch instruments, although I tune to specific pitches so there are a lot of harmonics and overtones that can cloud the issue. So now with midi, I solve that problem and the fundamental pitches come out in any hall and so that helps.
But you take a little bit of a different approach when you’re a composer. It’s not about me as a player and what I want to play. It’s about possibly composing an interesting drum part, or “how can the drum part enhance the music that’s happening?” So it’s a whole different mindset sitting on this side of the of the desk as opposed to being the performer who wants to do what he likes to do. So you have that kind of freedom and control and I think that it doesn’t matter so much to me that my old drum set doesn’t have a chromatic set of piccolo toms. I use eight and it works for–I make it work in band context where percussion can kind of get relegated to extraneous background noise
A: So yeah, speaking of which how has composition worked with other bands in terms of the drums being a compositional instrument instead of a percussive or background instrument?
T: Oh one of my feathers in my cap would be Alex Machacek’s SIC’ and when we were recording the Bozzio Preinfalk Machacek material, he said, “One of the things I want to do in this week or two is just let you go in and do a solo kind-of-like classical music. Do whatever you want and then I’m gonna compose on that so you go and do whatever you want.” And of course I did and I don’t remember anything I did. But he took that and composed the most amazing music, probably 15 minutes long, of just amazing stuff. So every fill and every little fast lick and space and everything is doubled and harmonized with guitar and bass and it’s a really beautiful piece.
And we played the front part of it live, which was challenging because it is kind of like modern chamber music for a trio: guitar, bass and drums. That piece if you ever get a chance to look at that you can see how compositional my playing is even when I don’t know what the end result is going to be. You know what I mean? And there’s some composers who that’s their concept.
He worked with a guy in Austria who is a brilliant composer and basically does this kind of thing and invites other musicians and he just puts them in a room and let’s them play all by themselves. Or other artists who you use sound objects, or sing or do anything, noise makers, what have you. And then he’ll make a piece out of what they did and it’s a beautiful concept and it all sounds very interesting.
A: That’s excellent. I don’t want to take up more of your time I’m sure you have something at the top of the hour so I just want to say thank you again for your art and your music and what you do and it’s really encouraging and beautiful to see you perform live on this tour, so keep it up. You’re inspiring a lot of people out there.
T: Oh thank you very very much I truly appreciate being here, and it’s my pleasure to be able to speak about things like this in that kind of depth, so it’s good for me too. So thanks very much and I hope we will talk again soon.
A: Thank you very much Terry and again I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
T: My pleasure, all the best.
A: Have a good one, bye.
T: You too, bye.