Bill Rieflin, in a press photo for The Humans' new album, Sugar Rush.
Courtesy of The End Records
Bill Rieflin, in a press photo for The Humans' new album, Sugar Rush.
Courtesy of The End Records
Stars only create a small part of popular music. In the creative space from which music arises, people are working — without worrying too much about how they might look in a photograph or whether they have influential swagger. These steady contributors raise the beams of music and channel its electricity. They are ones you want to hang with when stuck backstage or on a tour bus, because they tend to be curious, cool and unburdened by ego.
Bill Rieflin is one such musician. I first met him when we were both Seattle teenagers. He was the drummer for local post-punk sensations The Blackouts; I was one of the New Wave girls in the front at every show. A few years later Bill and I ended up working at the same Tower Records store in San Francisco. We'd spend break times talking about our shared bohemian fascinations: experimental music, esoteric spiritual practices. I thought of this guy as a rock star, but he turned out to be a regular nice person.
I went on to do my thing. Bill did his, and it placed him just to the left of being famous. A multi-instrumentalist from childhood, he developed an expansive approach to percussion. A lifelong association with the King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, originator of the Guitar Craft method of approaching music, helped him develop a musical style that beautifully balances mindfulness and force. Bill first practiced that style on a national stage when Al Jourgensen invited him, along with most of the rest of the Blackouts, to join his Motown of industrial sound, Ministry.
Since becoming a Ministry drummer in 1987, Bill has played on enough albums to fill up two pages of credits in the online All Music Guide. Many were by titans of industrial music: Pigface, KMFDM, Chris Connelly, the Revolting Cocks. Bill also played with dark rock favorites like Peter Murphy and Swans, and cosmopolitan artistes like the late Hector Zazou. After moving back to Seattle, he became a favorite there, collaborating with King Crimson alumnus Trey Gunn, The Posies' Ken Stringfellow, Soundgarden voice Chris Cornell, frequent Seattle visitor Robyn Hitchcock and the supergroupish Minus 5.
That last band included a Southern transplant to Seattle named Peter Buck. Sometime around 2003, the R.E.M. guitarist asked the drummer to step in and fill the hole left by another Bill: retired original member Bill Berry.
Rieflin played with rock's beloved Rickenbacker bards for nearly a decade. His punch and focus helped make 2008's Accelerate the band's best late-period album. Never an official member, Rieflin was nonetheless a major reason R.E.M. stayed alive for as long as it did. His energy and openness fed the band's spirit on the road and made a big difference in the studio.
When I heard that R.E.M. was calling it quits, I felt nostalgic, like every other former college rocker. But I was just as sad that I wouldn't see the R.E.M. I like now, the one with "that other Bill" in it.
Bill, of course, had other tricks up his always elegantly jacketed sleeve. He has a new album out this week with The Humans, a trio led by Toyah Wilcox, one of post-punk's most strikingly talented divas, who is married to Fripp. Sugar Rush will intrigue fans of latter-day femme powerhouses like Florence + the Machine and Zola Jesus. Bill has put down his sticks for this project, which has no drummer but two basses: Rieflin and Chris Wong. He also produced the new album. The Humans have just completed a brief East Coast tour and will spend October playing dates in the U.K.
I caught up with Bill via email after the trio's show at the Highline Ballroom in New York last week. He claimed exhaustion, but his answers prove that he's still his effusive self, embarking on another phase in a career that's been anything but off to the side.
The new Humans album could easily fit with the current crowd of New Wave-ish art rock coming out of, say, Williamsburg. What about what you're doing with this group aims for timelessness? What, if anything, responds to current trends?
The two points of timelessness and responding to current musical trends aren't really part of what makes this clock tick. As far as I'm concerned, timelessness isn't an aim. The aim is to do very good work. If the work is very good, and conditions are right, it's possible that timelessness can result. But I see this to be more the by-product of something else — musical and cultural. Someone might wish for it, but I don't think it can be intended.
As for current trends, it seems to me that pretty much any trend you might want to be a part of or connect to is out there and available. I don't see any one as having primacy over another. Certainly some are more popular than others, but in a way, everything that has existed is now existing, all at the same time. That's how it feels to me. The only tip of my hat to current trends was technical, in the recording of the new record. But I don't think I got it right.
This is a songs-oriented record, but the instrumentation is unusual. Explain why you decided to be a singer and two basses (augmented by other things, including Robert Fripp's guitar).
The fact is, I didn't decide anything. It was all Toyah's doing. For some reason, out of the blue, she asked if I wanted to play bass with a new project. After recovering from the sheer confoundment and confusion, I said, "OK." I had no idea why she would want a drummer to play bass. The concept of voice and two bassists as the musical core of the group is solely hers. Being that it's her vision, I can't exactly tell you the "why" except to say that, as a singer, I'm told, it's much nicer to sing without having to fight over guitars and drums eating up all the frequencies they eat up. From this basic trio grows further augmentation and adornment. As the producer, I will usually fill in where I see fit, adding musical highlights and emphases. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to show off. Robert joined us on this record as a continuation of touring we did together last year, so this was a natural step.
You're best known as a drummer, but really you're a multi-instrumentalist. How does your experience on other instruments inform your percussion work, and vice versa?
I don't know quite how to answer this question without getting very technical; it can be approached from a variety of levels, I suppose. My first instrument was piano. Then I picked up guitar, drums third. Drums were never my first choice as an instrument but that's what was needed in the neighborhood bands. And with The Humans I play bass. Apparently I go wherever I'm needed.
I find bass to be a very fun instrument. I'm not that good at it, but I generally keep within an area where I have confidence in, so it works. Chris Wong, the other bassist, plays all the harder parts. I'm aware that none of this answers your question, but I can say that the experiences with one instrument do blend into the others. But in ways that are unexpected and would be extremely difficult to describe, particularly after being brain-dead from sitting in a van for eight hours. Having said that, the differences are a lot more interesting. As a side note, I always say that [Swans leader] Michael Gira gives me my ideal job: he plays me music and asks, "What does it need?" which I sometimes interpret as, "What would you like to do?" and then I get to do it.
For the first half of your career most people probably knew you as the drummer for Ministry. Then most people knew you as the drummer for R.E.M. You've been doing other stuff all along, though. You've never only been "in a band." These days, more and more rock or pop artists are collaborating with a free-floating group of people rather than settling in with a solid band; you were ahead of the curve in taking that approach. What is the artistic value of being "in a band"? Do you think the "rock band" concept might be outmoded?
Wow. You really should have caught me on a day when I could think straight. But I'll give this a shot. Let's see here ... the value of being in a band is undoubtedly manifold. Right off the bat, I would say that simple camaraderie is an important one and not to be underestimated. Being in a band is like belonging to an exclusive culture. Really, more like a clan. This has its advantages and disadvantages. In its worst aspect, the inner workings of bands can be very cult-like. This is not healthy, no matter how you slice it.
In a real group, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This may sound clichéd, but it is absolutely true. For an easy illustration, take any great group, then weigh that work against the solo output of the people in that group. Or, weigh it against their work outside of the group with others. Voilà.
Regarding artistic value, this could depend on the structure of the group. There is the group where all of the parts are equal in terms of voting/veto power. Another kind of structure relies on more defined roles where those responsible for their contributions simply go about their business unmolested. What was your question again? In the end, you could argue that it comes down to the aim of the individual versus the aim of the group. Some things are possible within a group that are otherwise impossible for individuals. That's a good answer. Short and to the point. Just ignore the other stuff.
You and Matt Chamberlain are my favorite Seattle-based musicians — both drummers. [Chamberlain, a busy studio musician, recently left Seattle for Los Angeles.] I might add Pearl Jam's Matt Cameron into that mix, too. What is it about our hometown and the drums?
I have no idea, but I can tell you that Seattle is lousy with great drummers. There is a known drummer's lunch every Monday for those in the know.
R.E.M. announced its dissolution recently — a traumatic event for many indie music fans of our generation. I'm sure many people are asking you about your time with the band. What will you miss most about playing with them?
Actually, you're the first to ask. There are a lot of things to miss. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, the R.E.M.'s are a rare breed in my experience: they are all lovely guys — very smart, funny and, significantly, among the most generous and big-hearted people I have ever met. It's extraordinary. And this goes for everyone in the greater R.E.M. organization.
You were a student of Robert Fripp many years ago, and have gone on to collaborate with him in many capacities. I think he's an extremely underappreciated influence in rock — the kind of legend that everybody nods at, but few really acknowledge. Explain the impact of Fripp on your own work.
Even though Robert set it in motion, it's probably more accurate to say that I have been a student of Guitar Craft, rather than one of Robert Fripp. I couldn't possibly describe in any detail the impact this has had in my life; I can say that it was and continues to be significant. Were I to say "life-changing," this would be true, but it wouldn't begin to communicate the depth of the experience.
As for working with Robert, I love it. We've been on a lot of records together. Working with him is very straightforward. He takes direction well; conversely if you just get out of the way you'll usually get something you want. Even if you didn't know it.
About explaining his impact, I can say that King Crimson music figured strongly in my formative years, as did other pieces he contributed to. His voice is singular among guitarists. And I like that voice.
You have a beautiful speaking voice. Ever think about becoming a radio host?
You tease. You probably say that to all the Seattle drummers.