Terry Bozzio — one of rock drumming’s most formidable and brain-circuiting forces — is currently touring America, playing solo dates on “the world’s largest tuned drum and percussion set.” Best known as the hurricane behind Frank Zappa’s late-Seventies and early-Eighties work, and the hit-maker behind new wave powerhouse Missing Persons, Bozzio, 63, is hoping to shed his reputation as technical solo shredder. Following successful tours in Europe and Japan, “An Evening With Terry Bozzio,” is the first time he’s touring a melodic solo percussion performance in North America — hitting 40 dates, playing on two-and-a-half octaves of tuned tom-toms and eight notes of bass drum. We caught up with him to ask the drumming legend exactly how he’s lugging this thing across America.
How are you doing?
Man, I’m in hell right now!
I’m on my way to San Diego for the first gig of the big tour here and we snapped a serpentine belt in my SUV, so we’re trying to find a garage to fix it in and make the gig on time.
So, wait, are you doing this tour in your own SUV?
Yeah, I always do that. We tow a trailer with my drums — it’s me, my wife, and my tech — and that’s how we do it.
So this is your first solo tour of America doing this?
Yeah. Essentially for me, personally, it’s like doing same thing, different day; it’s just packaging. My problem’s always been how to market myself, so now I have a booking agent and a press guy who’s come to bat for me and they believes in me. The idea of a solo drummer is a difficult thing to get across to people. They think of the thrashing and bashing of a typical rock-concert drum solo. And what I do is not that [laughs]. So, basically, I’ve been doing the same type of playing under the guise of a drum and cymbal commercial for 25 years — maybe 30 years now — for Sabian or Drum Workshop drums. And what I’m doing now is taking it to a more public level.
It certainly got our attention more than a drum clinic would…
So, what I do, is my drums are tuned to chromatic and diatonic pitches and I have, I guess, I have two and a half, three octaves or so of notes to play on the toms. And then I have the eight different white notes of the piano as my bass drums. So I’m able to accompany myself much the same way a pianist would — with his left hand playing the bass notes and the right hand soloing against it. And that’s how I approach the drum-set. It’s very melodic, it’s compositional — it’s also improvisational — but I improvise in a compositional matter, it’s not just patterns and shredding and crap that you go, “Man, this guy does that perfectly. If on only if it meant something, you know?” L.A., it seems, has a glut of those kind of players that are just really enviable in their technique but don’t really say much, or maybe they don’t want to something that would make a producer not hire them for a session. So, for myself, it’s a pretty much a complete musical statement on the drums, and it doesn’t lose the primitive and the bashing and that fiery rock stuff that happens on the drum set. Otherwise, I’d just be a pianist or a marimba player.
It’s kind of a neat thing that it’s happened this year in the States because this is the 50th anniversary of my first drum lesson. It’s kind of neat how life and fate all work together, and here I am sitting in a broken car, sweating, hoping I’ll make the first gig. [laughs]
What’s amazing is that you have one drum tech to help set this behemoth up. It seems like it would take an army.
I’m really into design and efficiency. I do this myself without a tech, sometimes, and I watch my techs suffer through certain things that I haven’t prepared properly. So, it’s a real efficient machine: The rack comes apart in several pieces but just rides on top of the cases in the back of the trailer. So, you could load that in, put in on a carpet that’s already marked, and it goes up in about five minutes. Then you just pop on the drums, pop on the cymbal booms, and the kit’s pretty much there.
The latest innovation is I have 22 pedals all attached to linkages and different bass drums and hi-hats that are remote — they’re out where I can’t play them directly. The pedal part’s by my foot and the beater part is out by the bass drum, six feet away. And these 22 pedals all have to be attached and tweaked every day so they don’t interfere with each other and they feel right. I just built these templates — so just by setting three templates down, all 22 pedals are ready to be connected. So things like that makes it go fast.
You have the kit details on your website from 2012 — have you added or subtracted from that kit?
I think that one’s my Japanese kit. I have three of these big kits: one here, one in Europe, and one in Japan. They’re all a little bit different, and they all look really cool, and they’re a structural statements in and of themselves, but they do follow a function: putting instruments as close as possible to me so that I can play in a relaxed fashion. It is probably is the largest practical drum set in the world. There’s guys in the Guinness Book of World Records that have larger drum sets. I’m not really interested in the circus act part of it at all.
So you can say that you will use every piece on this kit at some point?
Some nights, I might not hit certain things or do certain things, but within a week, I will have used everything [laughs].
You can see the footage of you 40 years ago with Zappa, and the kits are big, but they’re not enormous. When did you fall in love with the idea of building this giant sculpture?
When I started to develop that electronic kit that I got the patents for in the Eighties and played on the second Missing Persons tour, I had 36 or 32 sounds in this one little three-foot bar in front of me. I got used to having all those things. And when I went back to playing acoustic, I started to add bells and some hi-hats and different things, but I was missing from the electronic kit.
Then someone called me and said, “Do you want to do clinics?” Ashamedly, I said yeah, OK ’cause I need the money and I kind of failed as a singer/pop artist and trying to be like Phil Collins. And during the time, I was depressed and started practicing. It was like a meditation, like a therapy for me. I kept thinking, “Why am I practicing? I’m already a good enough drummer that I’m almost alienating others in the music business by it. If I start practicing and getting better, nobody’s going to hire me.” So I began this thing of doing the clinics and working with the different companies, you find that, “Oh, Remo’s rototom castings, if you take them apart, you can use them as this really weird-sounding hi-hat” and I still use those. I had DW build me a take-off on the double pedal and I had them reverse the machinery so that the pedals was near me and the beater would be hitting a remote bass drum. And that stretched into using some big China hi-hats to kind of get a grancassa e piatti marching sound, you know? So I had remote hi-hats. Then when I went to the rack, you get rid of all these tripods and you put the drums on a rack and you go, “Man, I’ve got room for this and this and this under here.” And so before you know it, you just start adding whatever you can when you hear a sound in your head that you think would be a cool addition to some music that you’re trying to play. So it was really an evolution… There’s a great drummer by the name of Jojo Mayer and he’s from Switzerland and he’s got this thick kind of Swiss/German accent, and he goes, “Bozzio, every time I see you, your drum set, it’s growing like a fungus, man.” [laughs]
You’re getting away from the clinic ideas and expressing yourself musically, but when most people explain who you are, they mostly point to the technical aspect of “The Black Page,” the highly complex piece Zappa wrote specifically for you. Is that weird?
I mean, people say shit all the time, man; I don’t pay much attention to it. I’ve played now with some of the best drummers in the world… And Miles [Davis] and Joe [Zawinul] are dead, so I don’t choke much due to someone I want to impress being in the audience. Well, OK, I don’t know anything about brain surgery. So if you imagine the greatest brain surgeons talking about this one brain surgeon and how cool he is, what the hell would I know about that? So “The Black Page” is kind of the same thing to musicians or drummers – they don’t know about things like that. I always say, “Hell, Chad Wackerman and Vinnie Colaiuta had played way more difficult stuff than “The Black Page” right after I left Zappa.
I don’t want to not use it as a promotional device and as a feather in my cap; I’m not belittling it at all. And the compliments Zappa gave me around it, were, you know, really wonderful. Him saying, “You’re a fuckin’ genius,” when I played it for him really correctly one night with feeling and everything he needed. That kind of stuff, I carry with me. That’s meaningful. Yeah, so that’s how I feel about “The Black Page.” Really glad I got to do it and honored and all, but music is the most important thing — not technique.