You''ve played some very different kits in a wide variety of bands but you always have an instantly recognisable sound: did you try to cultivate an idiosyncratic playing style?
No, I just tried to make something interesting to my ears, and that''s all I''m still trying to do. Nothing has changed. I don''t know about this "instantly recognisable sound" business; I must have played a wider range and assortment of electronic and acoustic drums on record and in public than any other guy alive. If I was famous for 10 minutes, it was for the clanging open metal snare drum on Roundabout by Yes in 1972. I never played that drum again after that year.
So where does this "recognisable sound" come from? Obviously not the instruments.
Two places, actually; first, the touch of the drummer, the way the stick actually strikes the head, and second, the placement of the beat. If Tony Williams played my kit, he would have sounded like Tony Williams; and if I''d played his, I would have sounded like me. That''s because these two things that a drummer has, touch and placement, are portable, transferable and mostly incapable of being copied. Don''t tell the drum companies that though! If you can recognise me at all, its because of the way I go about things on a set.
Are British musicians different from American musicians?
Britons are different from Americans, and it shows in their respective drummers. Broadly, Americans applaud the work ethic, and avoid sneering at someone who has obviously worked hard and who isn''t afraid to show it. Here, any overt evidence of effort must be hidden at all costs. We like to deal in "concepts" and "ideas". I''m British to the extent that I''d rather hear a good idea poorly executed than something really tedious played really well, but how about a good idea well executed? Nothing wrong with that. In King Crimson, we had two Americans and two British players. The Brits, myself and Robert Fripp, argued late into the night about the conceptual direction for the music, while the Americans played pool. When we''d finally stopped agonising, the Americans just got on with it, probably played what they were going to play anyway, and played the shit out of it.
Can Rock musicians really improvise, or is that what makes a Jazz musician?
That''s as good a distinction betwen the two as any. Rock is based around the idea that the listener "wants" a certain type of music to proceed in a well-defined way, dependent on its genre, and he wants it repeated this way without variation. The rock musician is at the service of the customer, and the customer knows what he wants, which is the same thing as he got last time. There is little or no demand for improvisation in rock.
The jazz musician is infinitely less agreeable. Broadly speaking, his perception is that the audience is paying him to show them something they haven''t seen or heard before, and whatever it is, it won''t be the same in London on Friday as it was in Birmingham on Thursday. Broadly speaking, the jazz musician presents some material and then re-presents that in different ways--"here is the material, this is what I /we are going to do with it-tonight". That, of course, requires a hefty amount of musical skill. For rock musicians, improvisation is wholly irrelevant; for jazz musicians, its life. Its as much an attitude as anything; want to be a human juke box or an investigator of possibilities? Take your pick. I played with rock guys for a long time, but personally I couldn''t stand the repetition; now I play with jazz guys.
Your son Alex is a fine drummer - what have you learnt from his career? Would you rather be starting out now?
You''re kidding me. It was a breeze in my day, compared to now. In London in 1967, all the good drummers were jazz or studio musicians, and there were only about 6 of them. There were only about 3 rhythms to learn; you could get by with a jazz swing, some sort of rock beat, a latin thing, and some brushes. You didn''t have to buy a DVD to figure out how to tune the drums, you didn''t have to spend a fortune on equipment, there were only two cymbals, a big one and a little one, you didn''t have to be better than Virgil Donati before anyone would give you the time of day. You could like Coltrane or Hendrix, but not both, and consequently there was no need to be able to play both.There weren''t many drummers around, so most people and other musicians thought you were great because they hadn''t got much to compare you to. How else do you think I got started!
Now its a big business, world rankings, drum polls, charts and all. You need the skin of a rhino, the cunning of a snake, the patience of Job and the stamina of an elephant. If you can survive the first 10 years and haven''t actually starved to death though, it''ll probably get better.