Terry Bozzio circa early ’80s
BY JAMIE KNERR Terry Bozzio has seemingly done it all in the world of drums and percussion over the last 40-odd years, in the rarified air at the very highest peaks of rock, pop, jazz, fusion, world music and, well, you name it. Or so you might think. Fortunately for him, and for all of us, he hasn’t yet reached his pinnacle and is still climbing. Now more than ever he’s inspired to find new directions, other musical worlds to explore and map, in 2016 and beyond.
Already held in the highest esteem by both his musical contemporaries and worldwide audiences alike, Bozzio is currently undertaking a tour of solo appearances across the U.S. Challenging his own limitations, expanding old forms while forging new ones, mining deeper, subtler layers of his musical expression, these performances–partly improvised, partly composed, ever-changing–invariably produce some truly breathtaking results, with plenteous rewards for the listener.
Probably best known for his brilliant work on ten albums with Frank Zappa in the 70’s, Bozzio has a drumming resume that’s enough to make your head spin right off your shoulders. He has recorded and/or performed with no less than Captain Beefheart, Jeff Beck, the Brecker Brothers, UK, Herbie Hancock, Robbie Robertson, Billy Sheehan, Holdsworth-Levin-Bozzio-Mastelotto, Group 87, Andy Taylor, Missing Persons, even Korn, and far too many other luminaries to name. Not to mention his significant accomplishments as a composer, drum clinician, and visual artist.
A lifelong fan–but not generally star-struck–I confess to swallowing down hard on a lump in my throat when I spoke to Terry last week, in advance of his upcoming show at World Cafe Live on September 22nd. Thankfully he immediately put me at ease by being a sincere, personable, self-effacing, gregarious guy. We talked for nearly an hour.
PHAWKER: Hey Terry, how are the shows going?
TERRY BOZZIO: Well I’ve only done one so far, and that was perfect. It was sold out, at the Musical Instrument Museum Theater in Phoenix. It’s really a great place, you should check it out. You could spend hours there looking at instruments from around the world.
PHAWKER: On your current tour of solo performances in the U.S.: Is the music based on preconceived musical motifs and themes, or are you more or less shooting from the hip in terms of improvisation?
TERRY BOZZIO: Well, it’s both. There’s through-composed compositions, and improvisations. There’s form and structure and composition, but it’s always open when I solo. I never do the same thing twice, or know exactly what I’m going to do.
TERRY BOZZIO: I think I started to develop my own style after Zappa. I started to compose more melodic drum parts, I threw my ride cymbal away, starting stacking cymbals, using other instruments on my set. Even more so around the time I got with Jeff Beck. Also when I began doing drum clinics I was starting to play simple ostinatos. To my amazement everybody seemed to like that, so it encouraged me to do some more. I started using a gong as ride cymbal, using multiple hi hats…it sort of went in that direction. Now I’m just trying to go deeper and deeper. I look to people like Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis, to sort of inspire me in that direction. On my current kit I started with eight DW piccolo toms, set up in a diatonic scale…eventually I expanded the kit to include five more toms, tuned chromatically, so the drum set really became almost like a European-style button accordion.
PHAWKER: The kit you’re playing these days is just enormous, it must take forever to set up for performance…
TERRY BOZZIO: Yes. We can do it, in a relaxed way, in about four hours. I think the record was about 45 minutes in Chicago when I had a lot of really good help!
PHAWKER: Tell us something that would surprise us, either musically or personally, about Frank Zappa.
TERRY BOZZIO: I think the greatest misconception was that he was a crazed drug-addict hippie or something. He was a total tea-totaler. I’d seen him take a sip or two of alcohol in my life, never seen him anything like drunk or anything. He was always anti-drugs and would fire or fine anyone in the band that was messing around in that direction. He was a genius on at least seven different levels. He could have been really successful in any of those areas…he really enjoyed being an observer though. He never participated in anything that could be considered foolish or stupid at any time. He was an arrow, absolutely straight-ahead. “Get up every day and kick it to death” was kinda his thing. That was what his dedication was like.
PHAWKER: So here it comes, the obligatory “Black Page” question: What was the key to conquering that solo?
TERRY BOZZIO: Well, the good news is that came after I’d been in the band for about a year…Frank walked in and handed it to me one morning and said “What do you think about this, Bozzio?” It had “structural density”, as he used to say. There were a lot of notes in a very small space! There were parts I could sight-read, and of course some parts I had to work out. So for about twenty minutes a day before rehearsals I’d work on it. In a week or two I had it. He wrote the “Black Page” for my old drum kit, and wrote it up and down the staff, using the notes I had on my drumset. The melodies were quite challenging. He knew my style and what I was capable of though, so he really set me up to do something that felt kind of natural. I was very proud and honored that he wrote something just for me.
PHAWKER: I was surprised to learn recently not only that you auditioned for Thin Lizzy back in ‘78, but that you weren’t selected…what was that all about?
TERRY BOZZIO: (laughs) That was a really strange period. I’d left Frank, decided not to join Group ‘87 after I’d made the album, I’d done the Brecker Brothers tour, and was just kind of waiting around. I heard about the Thin Lizzy audition, and (guitarist) Gary Moore wanted to play with me. So we did the audition, that went well, Gary loved me, we all got along well musically but…I wasn’t a “Get drunk, fight and fuck” kind of guy, so I ended up not doing it.
PHAWKER: You were inducted into Guitar Center’s RockWalk in Hollywood in ‘07, along with rock legends Ronnie James Dio and Slash. I’m curious–what did the three of you talk about at the after-party?
TERRY BOZZIO: Oh, not much! Ronnie was a great guy, one of the nicest guys who ever lived. I had first met him at a Duran Duran show, I suppose in the late 80’s. I was telling him I wasn’t having much success with my solo career, and that I had sort of begrudgingly taken the gig with Jeff Beck. I remember him saying [sarcastic tone]: “Oh, I’m so sorry for you, you have to play with Jeff Beck!” Little did I know how wonderful Jeff was and how fantastic that experience would be for me. But Ronnie was a beautiful soul. As for Slash–I think I probably just said “Hi, how are you, nice to meet you”.
PHAWKER: Tell us about your painting and visual artwork?
TERRY BOZZIO: I started sketching with Beefheart in the 70’s, when I first got with Frank. On tour he always was drawing, he encouraged me to get into it. I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve done most of the artwork on my solo CDs, it’s nice to have the combination of putting a painting with a piece of music. The art is all abstract, so it really doesn’t have to “match” with the music.
PHAWKER: Aside from these solo shows and particularly your upcoming performance in Philly, what else are you doing now that the world should know about?
TERRY BOZZIO: Let’s see…There’s the Terry Bozzio Composer Series. It’s six CDs, plus Blu Rays, with 60 compositions and 60 of my paintings to go with them. There’s also the Heavy Metal Be-Bop Brecker Brothers reunion CD with the original members, done in Japan last year. And if you want to check out my artwork you can visit terrybozzio.com.