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Billy Cobham

Interview by Sean Mitchell // November 30 2014
Billy Cobham

You never lose what you’ve got but you continue to add things, and as you grow, as you get older (as I’ve found, and it seems like I’m not alone) you get wiser. You can get dumber but you normally get wiser. You don’t do the same things twice; if it’s a mistake, it’s a new mistake. You understand that it was a mistake and why. You make the adjustments so you can move on from there and life goes on.


It is incedibly humbling to talk to someone you respect and admire. And when that person can also easily be considered this centuries' most prolific drummer, it is a downright life changing moment. Ladies and gentlemen it is a huge honor to present our very first interview with Billy Cobham. 

I am sure, Bill, that often you don’t feel like a legend, but what does that evoke for you when you hear that used in context with you as you enter another era of your life?

I take it seriously. It’s a nice compliment and the reason for it is that some people obviously feel that I’ve provided them with a path to travel where they can accomplish certain things that they’ve seen me do. I’m glad to be of help. It also reflects on another way in the fact that it is unfortunate for us in our society; it’s not that often that people share, so it kind of stands out.

I’m glad that I’m on the right side of that equation and am able to at any time. I mean, if you see something you like, it’s yours; it’s not mine anymore – I already did it. I’ve got no problem with that. It’s actually the payment for the lesson, that somebody’s actually doing it again in a way that can evoke a kind of legendary status because it just doesn’t happen that often. Otherwise, I’d be just another guy on the street corner –  no problem.

Speaking of legends, a few years ago we met at the Cape Breton Drum Fest. It was Legends Edition. Of course there were a number of great drummers there and some legendary drummers. At the time I noticed you had a camera and were taking quite a few photos; it seemed like you were a bit of a “shutter bug.” Is that a hobby of yours? Have you been into it for awhile?

Yeah, to be honest I’ve been doing that since about 1963.

Oh wow! So you’ve seen the whole “barn-door shutters” to the digital revolution. I’m sure you have some incredible photography. Have you ever considered doing a photography book of sorts or have you done one?

I would like to do that. I have considered doing that– I’ve had some showings on the United States–  but I haven’t gotten a chance to.  I keep editing in my head but not anywhere else. I’d love to get back into a dark room, but the frightening part about dark rooms is that when I get in one it’s very difficult to leave it. Days go by and everyone thinks I’ve been carted away by somebody, but I’m actually in the dark room, a place where there’s only one red light (laughs).

What got you into photography, Bill?

Actually photography to me was a natural partner to the audio side of the arts. I was a terrible perspective person, so in terms of painting something, I just couldn’t get a handle on it; I didn’t have the patience to actually draw and bring things into perspective in a more two-dimensional size. I was able to satisfy my want to visualize things by using a camera instead and in the process just sort of line things up so anything I heard sonically I would try to translate into what I saw visually and vice versa. So they were great partners and have been all my life.

You’ve often credited your parents as being very influential in your musical career. They were musicians themselves. Do you remember the first time you discovered music or cognitively were aware of that you might like to play the drums, or when that was introduced to you?

Vaguely, because I think I was around three-and-a-half years old and that’s about as far back as I can remember. Drums have always been in the house – piano, guitar, people singing, and music playing twenty-four-seven. It was something that everybody in the house did; people sang, there was always something going on, there was always an interpretation of this, that or the other, musically. We listened to Basie, we listened to Ellington, we listened to the New York Philharmonic, we listened to the Boston – it just went on like this. Friends were Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie. I can’t say you couldn’t get away from it because nobody wanted to; it was just what happened in the house.

Your father was a piano player. What instrument did your mom play?

She sang.

Your parents played around New York, is that correct?

My father did, not my mother. She was more the straight-and-narrow type, conservative, and sang in the church mostly.

You’re releasing a series of albums (a four-part series) dedicated to your parents. Tales from the Skeleton Coast is the latest instalment of that. Is each part speaking specifically to a time in your life that you remember about them, or is it kind of a canvas on its own, pieces of the bigger picture?

Yes, Tales from the Skeleton Coast is the third and the latest. The fourth is on its way; I am just putting the material together for it now and we’ll start to record next year.

Now we’re into the point where we’re not reflecting back on them but presenting what they would have liked had they been here. The Tales from the Skeleton Coast is a pivotal recording in that it represents the last months that they spent on this earth and the things that I kind of experienced that I shared with them – that’s the best way to put it.

You never lose what you’ve got but you continue to add things, and as you grow, as you get older (as I’ve found, and it seems like I’m not alone) you get wiser. You can get dumber but you normally get wiser. You don’t do the same things twice; if it’s a mistake, it’s a new mistake. You understand that it was a mistake and why. You make the adjustments so you can move on from there and life goes on. Of course, you take things at a slower pace. You’re more introspective.

For me with the music, I’m not just putting it out there like I was before. I’m being more critical of what I put out there:  how it’s constructed, why I would construct it that way, what my point is that I am trying to get across in terms of communicating with the audience. More now every second of every day than I did before.

So when I play, if you reflect back to, let’s say the Cobham Duke or Mahavishnu, there’s about a million notes per bar. Now I’m thinking, How can I get everybody to think that I’m playing a million notes per bar when I’m, in fact, only playing two? But they represent the right pattern to imply what could go inside. The pattern’s not just a rhythmic pattern but also the tonal equation that goes along with it, thus a greater focus by me on the tonal character of each drum that I play on. 

So all of a sudden it’s not “duh duh duh” anymore and “drrrr” it’s like you listen to “drrrrr” but I’m playing only the tones that need to be played to give you the chance to play the rest in between.

So, you’re the conductor of a percussive symphony.

In an essence, yes.  I’m saying you can go this way, all you have to do– here is the trigger, bang –  and you got it until the next note I play and you just fill in the gaps. Much easier for me and the whole idea is that we are using our imagination. In a way, as you listen to me you become part of my band, whether you like it or not if you like what I’m doing, or you’ll get up and leave because that’s not what you imagined to have to do. My objective now is to imply and be musically affective doing that so that, in essence, I don’t have to play as hard and "whala" – I get everybody coming back for more because they were part of the band.

I remember in the green room at Cape Breton you were talking to Bernard Purdie about that and about some of the Mahavishnu stuff and the Benson stuff, and that had you to do it today the choices you would have made differently. It was very interesting to see the rhetoric between you, two very epic drummers both in the groove and in the chops industry.

As a benchmark to my double-kick prowess, I listen to Juicy and I try to emulate and watch you and cop what you’re doing. When I think about double-kick of that time, and specifically one of your mentors, Louie Bellson, the way that double- kick was approached a lot, from my ear, was either in triplets or duple meter. Nowadays, I hear a lot of just speed.

Billy, when you chose to have two kicks was the implication because you thought, Okay, I just want to play more notes, or did you think there was something artistically you could say with this instrument?

I felt there was something artistically to say with two bass drums, especially if they weren’t tuned in the same pitches. That’s first and foremost because now they have two separate characters. So you need to think about when you’re going to play which bass drum so it’s not just a sequential “dududu”; it’s a "du du du du" but do you want this note, or do you want that note? In real time, how are these patterns going to be employed inside the other patterns that you’re playing?  Again, you’re thinking from a base of tones not rhythms. The rhythms come afterwards, if you know which drum plays what sound, then it’s when you select that drum to play that sound in relationship to the other drums that you have.

Now, to me, that makes a lot of sense because we’re getting all these tones and they are related to – if you want to go that route – to the tonality of the music that you’re performing. Now you’re in harmony with everybody else, and so you have a specific harmonic and melodic voice that you contribute to the table of ideas. And everybody in real time is deciding, “Okay, if you’re going there, I’m going here.” This is how it’s going to sound and when you play it, what drum you play enhances whatever those ideas are.

If a drummer plays a large kit, I’ve heard people say you don’t need so many drums. I’ve thought that, provided you can play them, a bigger kit gives you so many more options than just a four-piece kit. I’ve wondered if some drummers are afraid of learning to play more melodically and think more melodically than just become a subversive sort of rhythm machine.

You can go further than that and believe that some drummers don’t even think about doing that. In their minds, it’s not broken, so why fix it? That means they have to study theory, and that means they have to go and play piano, but they’re a drummer. They think that means playing on the membrane all of the time making the same sounds and they don’t want to go away from that because they have enough trouble just dealing with that. That’s number one.

Then there’s the guys who actually have heard it but don’t’ know how to go about it, nor do they want to take away from the time that they need to be faster than, louder than, to play longer than their peers. Now these are the guys who are into it for sport and that’s all they want to do is to impress with hand speed or foot speed, but when to play them … well that’s all the time, or when there’s a solo. How do they get into it? Well, everybody stops – that’s what solo says for them. They’re alone, and when they start again that’s when they play time so that the band can come in. That’s the one -dimensional playing in which they work and many of them are very effective at this.

God only knows what they’re thinking in their minds in between. You can’t even talk about Buddy Rich, but in essence what everybody forgets about Buddy is that he was a great musician. He was a great dancer; he was a great actor; he could sing. It was thought that he was special, but we all have that. It depends on what doors get opened in the mind to allow us to enjoy those dimensions. Sometimes it’s just not there. You’re not in that community and you’re not thinking in that direction.

To me, I’ve seen so many things, being blessed coming from an Afro-American community where drummers were part of the community as a group. So you had a bass drummer – a tomba, a guy who just played big conga – and you had two other coongaros, and all the drums were tuned differently but everyone had a job. And when they all came together, it sounded like one drum, one language being spoken over and over again. This is what I try to emulate and present through my drum set. That’s where I’m going and where I feel most comfortable. I feel I’ve been blessed because it was always there; that’s what I experienced from a kid. I thought everybody did that–  and to find out the opposite, it was like, “Really?”

For me, I wasn’t born into it, so it took being in an African drum band where you’re just standing there with the  djune playing open tone then closed tone. As the djune player you’re the bass drum and that’s all you do. Then all of a sudden this melody and this voice comes up around you and it’s like, “Oh my God.”

The thing about it is there is someone playing a very high-pitched drum – it’s called a quinto –  or a very small djembe, and technically they’re sending the equivalence of Morse code on a rhythmic base.

An experience I had when I was in Etosha Pan, I was going to a ceremony for people who were married and I heard the patterns that were being played thirty or forty miles away because there’s nothing out there to stop anything. As long as the winds blowing in your direction, you hear everything. I thought they were four or five miles away.

As it turned out, the whole group that had been playing there were invited and employed to play there by drum and they lived in a village that was forty miles away from where they had to play. They knew about this a year before and it was all presented to them by drums and they accepted by drums.

The whole objective of this was that they had to play for five days without stopping because if they stopped it was bad luck. So you had about 11 guys who played from morning till night for five days – did not stop all night.

It was beautiful because they were using their whole body. They were thin as rails, very strong and very projected. They knew how to make the drums speak.

Speaking of that Billy, often you wear the headband and to me it looks very reminiscent of a hachimaki ceremonial headband. Is there a connection there?

No, I’m just trying to keep the perspiration out of my eyes. (laughs)

Stay tuned for part two of this interview next week.






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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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