“I’m just trying to look inside and find something beautiful and share it with others.”
As far as I can tell, there are three stages of familiarity when it comes to drummer extraordinaire Terry Bozzio.
The first stage consists of the casual music fan, who most likely wouldn’t have heard his name, per se, but they have an awareness of the tunes he powered for Missing Persons on radio and MTV, including “Words,” “Walking in L.A.,” and “Destination Unknown.”
Stage two is where is where it gets a little more interesting, with the kind of fans who obsess over the genius of Frank Zappa—for whom Bozzio played—maybe even still spinning their pristine vinyl collection from the ‘70s on their Audio Technica setups. Never make the mistake of asking them the “Is that a Mexican poncho or is that a Sears poncho?” question from “Camarillo Brillo”; they will undoubtedly make an earnest attempt to answer the question with expert analysis and in excruciating detail.
And the third stage? Drummers own the real estate here, and you’d be hard pressed to find one who hasn’t heard of Bozzio. Best brace yourself, though, because if you ask them, prepare for a steady stream of superlatives, the kind usually reserved for saints and superheroes.
I guess that’s why I was taken aback by, well, how down to earth Bozzio actually is. In fact, when I spoke to him for this interview, he was in the process of packing his gear into his trailer, and getting ready to hit the road—and if you know anything about the size of this guy’s kit, you know that cannot be an easy task. “We’re packing up today, and driving tomorrow,” he says cheerfully. “And we’ll be on the road ’til November.”
The Terry Bozzio: An Evening of Solo Drum Music tour kicked off in Phoenix August 14 and continues through October 23, with two nights in Denver August 19 and 20, and a stop in St. Louis September 9. We start chatting about the early days in San Francisco, when he was just one of many drummers looking to make a dent in the business. “My first gigs were rock ‘n’ roll gigs with my friends, and others were playing in college band and orchestra, chamber ensembles, percussion ensembles, things like that,” he tells me. Soon, session work and radio gigs started to trickle in before he got the chance to play in the pit for a production of Godspell. “It ran for 13 months, and it was a professional, musical education. I was a very lucky guy to play with some of these big jazz masters who were living in San Francisco at the time.”
It all started when he was kid, growing up in the City by the Bay, and as strange as it sounds, television of all things played a significant role in his beginnings. “When you’re a kid, you look at drumming as an adult activity, so a couple of the key things were seeing Little Ricky on the I Love Lucy show play the drums, and watching Cubby O’Brien on the Mickey Mouse Club show play the drums. That’s how I knew that I wanted to be a drummer.” As for so many, it was a Beatle that sealed the deal. “Then Ringo Starr came on the Ed Sullivan Show, and that’s when I asked my father for drum lessons and started studying legitimately.”
After a lot of work, he made it to his first recording experience, and to hear him describe it, it was a pinch-me moment for the books. “I was on a record by a Latin jazz trumpet player by the name of Luis Gaska on Fantasy Records out of Berkley, California.” Even though he only got to play on one tune, the time spent with a band full of all-star heroes was well worth it. “Jack DeGerent, who is a very famous drummer—one of the best in the world and a huge influence on me—played most of the record on my drum set. I got to play on one tune because he wanted to play piano on it, and he’s also an accomplished pianist. So my first recording session was getting thrown into the deep end of the pool with George Duke on electric piano, Jack DeGerent, Eddie Henderson, Joe Henderson, Julian Priester, all these great jazz players. We played John Coltrain’s ‘A Love Supreme’ in two takes, and it was over. Two weeks later, I heard it on the radio, and it was such a shocking moment for me, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Soon after, his tenure with Zappa began; and it was every bit the transformative experience one could expect. “It was a musical education beyond my wildest dreams. I had some really good teachers in college, and the San Francisco Symphony, and a private teacher, Chuck Brown. I think I was prepared for it, but no one is ever prepared for the kind of stuff that Zappa wrote. It was like Marine boot camp for musicians.”
Bozzio eventually went on to play with the Brecker Brothers and U.K., but his days with Zappa continue to inform him when he takes stock of how far he’s come. “One of my only regrets,” he confesses, “is that, with what I know now and the sensibilities I have, I would love to be able to back him up on a guitar thing again. Back then I was a dumb kid trying to impress everybody. But he’s passed on, and I learned so much. I mean, we wouldn’t even be talking if it wasn’t for Frank Zappa.
“He took me out of nowhere and made me internationally famous with creditably,” he says, still seemingly struck by his good fortune. “I can’t name anyone who could do that for somebody else today. I was very lucky, and I’m grateful for it.”
In the era of video killing the radio star, Bozzio insists that lady luck continued to smile upon him when he formed Missing Persons with then-wife Dale Bozzio and Zappa pal Warren Cuccurullo.
“Yeah, I mean we were very lucky,” he confides. “One of my heroes, Miles Davis, loved Missing Persons; that in itself was enough for me.” With Dale Bozzio dressed up in her Saturn 3–meets–Flash Gordon getups and wild child makeup, the group instantly connected with the basic cable set and Top 40 teen fans everywhere. “I think we were pretty clever in putting Dale in front of guys that could really play and sing music that was interesting. We got away with it, you know. Most musicians want to be able to play something that is creative and unique, but also have it be commercial. So we had our 15 minutes, and I learned a lot.”
All good things come to an end, though, and by 1986, the band called it a day. “We’ve all seen it and heard it before on Behind the Music,” he says. “All the stuff that happens with bands: You get some fame, a record company is behind you, and the pressure just affects different people in different ways.” The lessons learned weren’t lost on him, and he remembers more good times than bad. “I’m very proud of everything we did, our accomplishments, and glad that people enjoyed it. Everything I do, I try to look at it like, ‘This was the best I could do with what I knew at the time.’”
When the talk gravitates towards his current tour, I ask about his giganto drum setup, which his press release heralds as “the world’s largest drum kit.” Bozzio laughs and says, “It’s big!” Pressed for more details, he responds, “What it is, it’s something I developed over the course of doing solo drum performances and clinic situations for so many years. It got to the point where it’s pretty much a legitimate musical instrument now. I have enough notes to play melodies and harmonies, and I can accompany myself with bass notes on the bass drums.”
Every drum on Bozzio’s kit is tuned to a specific pitch. “They’re also doubled with MIDI pitches with my synthesizer so you can really hear the melodies, so it’s a true musical statement on the drumset itself.” Ultimately, the goal wasn’t to become an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for how many drums he could cram onto a stage; rather, he constructed what he needed, to make the dream in his head a reality.
“When you’re playing melody, you need more notes, and a three-piece drum kit isn’t going to do it for a two-hour show,” he explains. “So, that’s the reason I have a big drum kit.” And it’s not just the drums themselves that play a part in his melodic percussion approach; the entire kit, every piece, has a significant role to play. “The rest of the stuff is set up in graduated pitches of eight different cymbals or bells, or double chinas, to play melodically on. So it’s not like I’m trying to be, ‘Hey, look at me, I’ve got the biggest drum set in the world’; it’s more or less like, ‘I need this to make the music that I hear on the drums all by myself.’”
This unique approach to the instrument is exactly what makes it so difficult to promote Bozzio’s music to the average listener. “It takes about a paragraph to understand, but basically, if you’ve never seen me before, there’s no way to describe what you’re going to see.” After playing for close to 50 years, Bozzio says that “No one has followed me in the direction that I took. So I humbly say I am the only person doing this kind of thing on the drum set.”
The way Bozzio sees it, a concert with drums as the focal point is a “culturally important event. Drums are a modern invention, about 100 years old, but they’re a uniquely American creation. And then jazz is the place where the drums really developed, so jazz is a very unique American tradition.” Putting this into context, Bozzio feels he is adding to this tradition with his perspective on the instrument. “There are many, many drummers better than me, in a classic and traditional sense, but no one is doing what I’m doing, and so it’s very hard to describe and classify.”
After decades ploughing his own furrow, it’s difficult for even Bozzio to describe what he does with an objective eye. How do others describe him? “Some people describe me as a time traveler, or a storyteller—that I put them in a trance, and take them to places they never thought they’d go. For me,” he reasons, “I’m just trying to look inside and find something beautiful and share it with others.”
Before he hitches up the trailer and hits the highway to start the tour, I decide it’s best to end it on a Zappa-esque note by asking him to weigh in on the Sears poncho vs. Mexican poncho debate. He laughs, and replies, “Well, that was way before my time, but we played that song on my first tour with Zappa. He was definitely one of the most intelligent and gifted people in so many areas, each one of which he could have made a career out of. I mean, he was a writer, a comedian, a legitimate composer, a bandleader, a rock star, and a great guitarist. We’ll never have that, before or since, somebody with as many talents as Frank. I was always in such awe of him.” | Jim Ousley
See Terry Bozzio as he presents a solo musical performance on the World’s Largest Tuned Drum & Percussion Set at the 2720 Cherokee in St. Louis on Sept. 7. For ticket information, visit 2720Cherokee.com; for more information on Terry Bozzio, go to www.terrybozzio.com.
08.14 | MIM Music Theater, Phoenix
08.19-20 | Soiled Dove, Denver
08.23 | The Vanguard, Tulsa
08.26 | McDavid Studio, Ft. Worth
08.28 | One World Theater, Austin
09.03 | City Winery, Atlanta
09.04 | Saturn, Birmingham
09.07 | 2720 Cherokee, St. Louis
09.08 | Nathan P. Murphy’s, Springfield MO
09.11 | City Winery, Nashville
09.15 | Plaza Live, Orlando
09.16 | Largo Cultural Center, Largo FL
09.19 | The Pour House Music Hall, Raleigh NC
09.20 | Hamilton’s, Washington DC
09.22 | World Café, Philadelphia
09.23 | Havana, New Hope PA
09.25 | City Winery, New York
09.27 | Stafford Palace Theater, Stafford Springs CT
09.28 | Woodstock Music Lab, Kingston NY
09.29 | Narrows Center for the Arts, Fall River MA
10.03 | The Token Lounge, Detroit
10.10 | City Winery, Chicago
10.11 | Shank Hall, Milwaukee
10.13 | The Dakota, Minneapolis
10.18 | The Triple Door, Seattle
10.19 | Doug Fir Lounge, Portland
10.20 | WOW Theater, Eugene OR
10.23 | Yoshi’s, Oakland CA
more dates to be announced