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Billy Cobham Part 2

Interview by Sean Mitchell // December 10 2014
Billy Cobham Part 2

You hone your craft. You stop and you think. Use your imagination, never lose it and never leave it to someone else to decide for you what you can really decide for yourself


Looking to the future, Bill, do you do a lot with electronic drums, or is that something that interests you?

Sure, as a matter of fact there’s a recording coming up that’s going back – this is going back to the future because I started with electronic drums in 1963. I stopped when it was at a point of frustration when I couldn’t even get the on/off switch to turn on or turn off. That was about 30 years ago when I decided to go into the acoustic drum set because there was a lot of questions I had , still do. Since then, within the last five or six years Yamaha, Alesis, Roland especially, they’ve all come up with some pretty nice things and they’re consistent. My point right now is I’m even working with the Zen drum at this point.  I’m in the middle of a bunch of things.

You’ll see my drum sets now – or it started with my old PHX when I was still with Yamaha – I had my Yamaha pads and it’s continued; that was last year. Now we’re into the Yamaha pads and the Tama drums and the Zen drum.

Again it’s like sequences: starting the show with this, working with it then playing against it, loops and stuff like that and playing against them. When you listen to The March of the Pomegranates – I wrote that and all of that’s been sampled, so I play against it –  I just play drum set and solo inside and out of it and then I insert that into the show. Then my band comes in and we play that live. So it makes a transition and bridges between the sequential and the human factors and we go back and forth. To me,  it’s just a beginning for me finally to set kind of a pace. I’m just composing things on the fly and coming up with ideas that I feel are very much representative of where I am now and that’s important.

That leads me to my next question. Spectrum was a benchmark for you. Do you ever have any desire to measure an album against Spectrum, or are you comfortable with leaving that in the past? It seems everyone makes the comparison to Spectrum.

I think it’s the same for me because I’m back playing the whole record again. We played in eastern Canada – the band’s called Spectrum Forty and that record is due out in January. We play "Quadrant 4," "Spectrum,"  "Le Lis," "To the Women in My Life" (which is now not just an introduction to "Le Lis", but it’s a complete stand-alone piece) and "Red Baron." We don’t play "Taurian Matador" but everything else we play – new arrangements.

What’s happening with that is – again, it’s inside now "Quadrant 4"; so it’s "Quadrant 4," all the way up, play a solo, start the seven, "Spectrum" and we end with "Quadrant 4"; so it’s like book-ending the 7/4 piece. It’s changed. This is something I would never play with Leland Sklar. Maybe by now, had he lived, I would have loved to have heard that– [to hear] Tommy Bolin play it now.

Tommy, Amy Winehouse, Hendrix – they had so much information that it was kind of compressed, as far as I’m concerned. They did it and then they were gone and all at the same age of 27. What Tommy did at that time in 1973, it’s still difficult for people to play now because they hear so many more notes and he played it like he was sitting down and hooked on the elbow of James Cotton or Muddy Waters. He just played all the notes that made sense and it gave you a chance to think about things. Oh man, he just made an amazing statement. It’s like listening to Paul Simon sing the United States national anthem without the embellishments: it is the purest, most melodic, most musical thing I’ve ever heard anyone do with that composition. No embellishments, just straight-out beautiful tone. No one has to do anything else because it’s such a beautiful piece already.

You’ve been in Switzerland for a long time. There must be a huge amount of influence for you in that country; what was your decision to move to Switzerland?

Study. Not go to school and study in an institution with four walls; the institution is without walls, it’s all around us. For example, if I came to Halifax I could only play music that is relative to what’s going on there by living there for a few years; you just don’t walk in and take over – no way! It’s something that you have to live and experience – the good, the bad, the ugly; it’s the same anywhere. You don’t lose what you have, you just add to it. It gives you a feeling of “I know why they play like this.” Now I know where Zydeco came from. When you go back and you see the history, you get it. It only helps you to play better because you understand where it’s coming from and why you do what you do and when you do that it brings out the real personality.

So there must be a mass amount of stimulation in Switzerland?

Well it’s not Switzerland; it’s living here. We have less than 4,000 people in our town in total and it’s grown. It’s kind of like a safety valve. This is where you live, this is not where you play. Occasionally every few years there’s a little bit of a tour of the country, but you can play about 12 concerts in Switzerland and be done in three weeks. There’s nothing here but that’s okay, and that’s the beauty of it.

But what’s really special and really important is to establish your relationships in Italy, Austria, France and Germany. Switzerland is in the middle of those four countries. You can get to the border of France and all of a sudden you’re in the lowlands of Europe, which is Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg. The thing about it is you could probably put all of Western Europe in Canada about five times – Canada is so big! In Western Europe I would say there are about 3- or 4-million people.

We’re talking about a situation where it’s all the provinces of Canada where everyone speaks a different language. In Germany alone the dialects are so radical from the north to the south and it is also reflected in the music. So there’s a lot to absorb; in the 35 years I’ve been here, I’ve absorbed a drop in the bucket.

So no plans to move back to the States anytime soon?

No, I don’t feel I have to. I’m so established or in my mindset to be here. Back in 1978-79 I was very close to moving to Toronto. I just couldn’t get my head wrapped around the music of what they called disco at the time – a bunch of guys going "In the Navy" – it was way out of line for me. I can’t remember the studios I was recording in at the time but I was trying to figure out, Would this be right for me? I’d be close enough to the States. Then I realized that I just couldn’t because I knew then that Canada and the United States were having serious difficulties in terms of borders and taxes and so on. I went, “No, I don’t need this.”

I went on a tour with my band in Western Europe; we started in Switzerland and about six weeks later of working six nights every week in a different town I just decided, “I can’t turn this down. Let me just see what’s around here to understand better what’s going on.” I thought I would stay for six weeks!

You’ve worked with some prolific players like [Peter Gabriel], Miles Davis – what did you take away from those artists?

Miles gave me the opportunity to understand that I needed to be responsible for the mistakes I made and that mistakes were not necessarily mistakes but an indication of what I heard that could turn into something rather personal in the future if I analyzed it properly and made use of the situation; to not be afraid to make a mistake, to understand it was a mistake (if it was not intentional) but think about it because maybe there is a direction to go in. It may not be right then but don’t ever lose the idea.

You hone your craft. You stop and you think. Use your imagination, never lose it and never leave it to someone else to decide for you what you can really decide for yourself. For instance, I was in a rehearsal with Miles and he said to me, “Play something for me that will give me this groove.” I played something and he liked it. He said, “Remember that and play that tomorrow at the sessions.” Panic set in because I don’t remember what I played. The next day in the studio we got to a point where things were grooving and he said to me, “Remember that line I told you? OK, play it now.” I didn’t remember it so I just started to play something and he went, “That’s not what you played before but I like that – play that.” It made me stop and think a lot about why I could not re-invent this pattern, why I didn’t stop to think about it and maybe jot it down or whatever.

But he didn’t want me to go that far. As it turns out, what he was saying was, “Yeah, you played something really hip in the spirit of the thing you played before, and actually, it sounded better today what you played than what you did play before. We don’t need that; we need this.” Keep thinking. Always move forward never turn around and go backwards.






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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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