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Interview With Billy Cobham

Billy Cobham

Interview with Billy Cobham

Billy Cobham continues to push the boundaries of musical expression through design and through inventive experimentation. From his formative years of Mahavishnu Orchestra and collaborations with an impressive portfolio of musicians such as Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, Jan Hammer, George Benson, Randy Brecker, Peter Gabriel and Jack Bruce, his huge respect for musical genres and exploration of ethnic rhythms serves his innovation as a musician. Commercially, Massive Attack had a huge hit with ‘Safe From Harm’ and the track was centred around the bass line of ‘Stratus’ from his debut solo album ‘Spectrum’. Also, people like DJ Shadow often incorporated Cobham inspired jazz fusion grooves in their sets. We talked in the middle of a busy residency at London’s Ronnie Scott’s.

You’re one of the first drummers who has explored the many avenues of drum kit set-ups and brought what is termed now as ‘open handed playing’ to the fore. How did this transpire – was it something you’ve adapted to or was it a concept you explored through experimentation?

It was a natural transition and it was to do with comfort. First and foremost my natural gravitational tendency was to approach the drums and be comfortable – I didn’t want it to be work. My dad was a piano player and he knew many reputable and accomplished New York studio musicians. They told me I had to play drums traditionally and that was the way you were supposed to do it. When I asked ‘Why?’ they said “Because that’s the way you do it”.

My dad used to say listen to these guys so I went along with it and according to these guys it was law. But, there was a little kernel of a question running around in my head “So why?”. I didn’t feel comfortable playing that way - I’m sitting at a drumset and I’m not comfortable, why is that? I could only the question myself and resolve this unknowingly by trial and error. I first questioned the way I sit behind the kit, maybe my cymbals are angled wrong and I looked at Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson and they played traditionally and said “How come I can’t do this?”

I had my brother Wayne by then, this was back in 1952, and saw him at age 2 years and he used to shake his baby rattles so I then fooled around with that and then I looked at those guys who play mallet instruments like xylophone and glockenspiel. Then I started to realise that equal power was coming to me naturally in match grip and I found it was a natural way for me to sit too. When I made the decision to play this way I then had to adjust my hi-hat by lowering it ‘cause in traditional grip I couldn’t get to the hi-hat with it being so high. With matched grip I immediately found that to be very comfortable having the hi-hat almost parallel to the snare drum but my ride cymbal was then on my right, that didn’t feel right to me. Then I thought ‘Why do I have to cross right to the other side to get to the ride cymbal?’. I then moved the ride to the left and immediately found a huge advantage as there was a natural pathway from the hi-hat to the ride. This left my snare drum completely clear in front of me to do whatever I want; no cross sticking, I don’t knock my sticks out of my hands and the whole kit opened up. My mandate has always been clear and that was to play the drums, not to look good playing the drums. I picked up a pair of sticks because it was fun and to be comfortable and it translates to the way I approach my life, I like to be comfortable. In general, human beings only want peace of mind in some way and we all gravitate towards it because you know you can always fall back on it – for me, it’s to be at my most natural to bring out the best in me. 

As both a musician and drummer, you are very dynamically aware both in your performance and in your composing. How important is dynamics in all its forms?

Tremendously important but you got to understand what the definition of dynamics is. Some may define dynamics as you got to play loud then you got to play soft; yes, but there’s much, much more to it then that. It’s also the level of intensity then again; it’s also defining what intensity itself. It’s just not volume, playing loud – you can play extremely intense very softly.

It literally is much more difficult, times a hundred, to play that way than to play loud. But if you play softly and intensely, its more likely you will play longer than if you played loudly and intensely. Most importantly it has to have meaning. When you play intensely you play with emotions, when you speak you speak with emotions. So if you play the way you speak, you’re expressing emotion and that translates to the music.

My challenge to those now or in the future, to anybody who comes in contact with this particular document, I challenge them to play with dynamics because most don’t. The reason is because they don’t know what dynamics are so if you don‘t understand it then you simply can’t play it. Learn to play with dynamics; it will bring out the best in you as a drummer and musician. 

Billy and Louis Bellson 1978

I believe that the late great Louis Bellson was one of your tutors. What impact did he have on you as a drummer in terms of technique, attitude, expression and ideas?

It’s sad losing him but it was inevitable but what Louis Bellson gave me was latitude. He opened my eyes to many percussion possibilities like multiple bass drum presentation with two bass drums or more. I remember in 1978, he said to me “Well, you know what you got – well, that’s a good thing - now how are you going to use it in other ways?”. He said to come on out back; he had this ranch style home, and he said “Have you ever thought of playing more than two bass drums?” I said “I can’t play one bass drum!”. He laughed and said “I’ll show you something”.

Now bear in mind this is 1978 and he had this set up with five bass drums and he was playing with the Boston Pops and I tell you they were rockin’ and playing some great stuff. I said ‘I can’t do that’ so although excited, Louis never pushed, he was all about showing. He then showed me a set up with three bass drums which I emulated that later and adapted to my Tama ‘Sunburst’ set-up at that time and I lived with that for quite a while – I did the ‘BC’ album with that and also toured in Europe with Glass Menagerie with it. Later in the mid nineties I had an upgraded version of that set of that and toured with Peter Gabriel in 1994 and 1995. By then I was really comfortable with it. Louis wanted me to be selective to open the broadest rhythmic and musical spectrum. I had a 24” bass drum 22” and a 20”, I had three snare drums – a piccolo in the middle, 10” on my left hand side, that had a big thuddy sound and a normal 6.5” all mounted off a huge rack – with no snare stands, two ride cymbals and remote hi-hats. Mapex had helped me out there with this great set up. It made me so aware of sound, tones and taught me even to understand miking the drums - that was a learning experience – all these elements are so important to a musician who is conveying their ideas through the drumset. It wasn’t about having them there but it opened up so many possibilities to feed my expression.

Billy in 1978

There’s an album we [Louis and Billy] made together called ‘Matterhorn’ and there’s also a live album recorded in Montreux, Switzerland.

I remember that Louis was supposed to do the Montreux Jazz Festival, now this was 1978 or 1979. Louis couldn’t make it so they got Buddy Rich. Buddy had a tantrum, he refused to come and play for some reason - he was at the Montreux Palace and wouldn’t come downstairs. So back in the concert hall, out comes this kid with flip-flops, jeans and a T-shirt and it’s Claude Nobs the man behind Montreux Jazz and says to me “You gotta play NOW” and I’m like totally stunned. We go to the bandstand and there’s Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and Neils Olsted Pederson and me. I’m playing on Buddy’s drumset or whatever the set they provided for him. Louis came in handy in thought and before I knew it was over and it was great – the one thing I remember is that I had no shoes on (laughs).

Louis always kept a positive attitude when in the public eye. If there was a role model for drummers it was Louis Bellson. He was a great orchestrator and composer. I seek to be the same.

You’ve now got so many successful albums and been involved in many different projects, how do you approach musical composition?

Firstly, in my formative years, I was brought up to play in an environment where drummers were respected as musicians within a group. It was a group and there was no one that stood out, everyone in the band represented the band. When it was important for the drums to take the forefront it was done to compliment the music and immediately the community of players perform to what you do – that’s how I am today. I can still sit behind the band but still be in the front.

Billy, Gary and Leeland Sklar on the Spectrum Tour 2002

For me, this was is a great example of why we have a language that can be translated on paper. Now with the music I write, everything is written by me; the bass lines for example are my thoughts not the bass players. He needs to understand where I’m coming from to allow me to do what I need to do and also to give him direction. A lot of the things that are coming across initially iare written note for note, the melody, the arrangement; those are the things that I have written for him to play. The same for the guitars, the same for pianos so when it all comes together it all represents my music.

In essence, I have the band on a short leash musically in a way but at the same time when they get comfortable with the music, the structure and the patterns because there is a lot of interaction going on, then everything flies. Now then that’s when you find where ‘home’ is, in the musical sense, so if they want to try anything, they know where ‘home’ is and I can do the same. Strangely enough now I understand why John McLaughlin wrote a lot of the material for the artist that played with him. He wrote most of the bass lines for the bass players and they had to play it, he wrote it because he knew what lines would fit the material. Now, when I write material now and it’s taken me a long, long time, everything is written integrally and everyone has a part to play – it fuses both the rhythmic and melodic side of my expression.

''Spectrum'' was a huge turning point in terms of highlighting your solo career. It has also become an acclaimed album worldwide amongst music critics and riffs have been sampled. What''s the story behind ''Spectrum''?

I chose to make this recording when I sensed that I would no longer be part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I understood that the band had major social problems amongst the members and felt that changes would be made at some point sooner or later. So, I started to conceive a plan that would find me making a musical calling card before the band splintered. In the summer of 1973, I began searching for musicians to record with me. I remember considering and speaking with people like Ralph Towner (Oregon), Stanley Clarke, and a few others in the music business before settling on Leland Sklar, Tommy Bolin and Jan Hammer for my core musicians. Also, on the record were musicians whom I had much experience in the recording industry: Ron Carter, Jimmy Owens, Joe Farrell and Ray Baretto provided support as well. But, when I saw that my days as part of the band were numbered I pushed hard to make a demo for Columbia Records and then for Atlantic records. I did not get the opportunity to make a demo for Columbia. They were not interested enough to give me a shot but Mark Meyerson, at Atlantic, did and the end result was Spectrum. This recording has to be one of the most successful records never to have received a gold or platinum disc.

If you had to list Top 5 albums that influenced you during your formative years, what would they be?

7 Steps to Heaven: Miles Davis
A Love Supreme: John Coltrane
Wave: Antonio Carlos Jobim
ESP: Miles Davis
Concerto for Orchestra: Bela Bartok

Could you offer a solid piece of advice for a drummer entering the music business today in the hope of making it as a professional artist from both the music and business standpoint?

Sure. Simply be patient, this will take a while.

Billy and Gary in 1976

Artist Appraisals

"I worked with Billy as a member of a number of his bands, in various line-ups throughout the ''90s.  It was always a very positive, supercharged musical experience and I was very flattered he invited me so frequently. It was very generous of him to be featuring me also as a drummer in quite a few of those tours too, and it''s a great memento for me to have been probably the only other drummer to be featured on one of his albums, ''The Traveller'', where we performed a drum duet together.  Billy was a monumental inspiration for me when I was starting out."

Gary Husband

Derrick McKenzie

“Billy Cobham is one of my favourite drummers of all time and comes in my top two favourite drummers. He has been massive influence in my whole career from the beginning of me playing drums when I was introduced to him at school.  ‘Crosswinds’ is my favourite album and will be for long time to come.

I totally have the most respect for Billy Cobham as he is not just a drummer but a fantastic musician, producer and writer also, and for this I have the most respect. I cannot thank him enough for giving me the inspiration over the years and continues to do so even now. Thanks Billy for the beats and grooves you have given us over your amazing career, my dear friend!

Respect to the utmost max!”

Derrick McKenzie (Jamiroquai)

Gary Powell

“Billy Cobham is not only one of the leading figures in jazz fusion - but also a leading exponent in ''interpretative percussion.''

With all of his works including the many artists such as Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the elements of ''interpretation'' and complete musicality are just two of the things that for me makes Billy stand out amongst his peers - this coupled with a fundamental understanding of rudimental drumming Billy Cobham truly helped shape the way I approach the instrument today.

Bearing in mind that the instrument is only approximately 100 years old, without the input of musicians of the ilk of Billy Cobham, I would not be approaching the instrument with the same vigour or musicality.

Another thing that fascinated me about Billy''s style - was his style!!  He had a unique approach to the instrument – and I am not just referring to the fact that he played open handed, but his overall approach to the music he wrote or performed on seemed to be thought out from not only a drummers approach but that of a musicians and the listeners and the more music I write for my band or, scores I compose and arrange it truly gives me more of an understanding as to where he is coming from with his very stylistic approach.

I am a huge fan of the work that Billy accomplished with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and  simply put, the musicality was one of the things that turned me on to them with pieces such as ''Sister Andrea,'' a great piece of music at the height of the experimental jazz rock phase.

In short, Billy Cobham''s influential prowess knows no bounds as can be depicted by his outstanding recording resume’ and I hope to continue to listen to the man that spawned a generation of great musicians.

Thanks Billy, you rule!”

Gary Powell (Dirty Pretty Things)


Billy’s Equipment:

Drums: Yamaha
Drum Heads: Evans
Cymbals: Sabian
Sticks: Vic Firth

For more information: 

Interview; Jerome Marcus
Photography; Jerome Marcus
Additional Photography: Yamaha, Sabian, Gary Husband, Gary Powell, Derrick McKenzie

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