Destination Unknown

Terry BozzioWhat are words for, when no one listens anymore?" In 1982, when his hit New Wave band Missing Persons was riding the charts with "Words," Terry Bozzio asked precisely that musical question. Nearly 20 years later, the Los Angeles session man, who moved to Austin two years ago, has taken to asking a different question: "What are drums for?" If attempting to answer the latter query as a solo drum act sounds a bit monotonous, then you haven't been listening to Terry Bozzio.

Then again, who has the time? Certainly not Bozzio himself, just back from a tour of Europe and on his way to Florida for a drummers' convention in Florida and then on to destinations unknown. Getting Bozzio to sit for an interview and tell you his story, however, during the brief time he alights in town like a blood-mad mosquito, is to hear a cascade of familiar words -- names such as Frank Zappa, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. From anyone else, this tale might seem like that of an unrepentant name-dropper, but from the mouth of the 48-year-old drummer, who looks at least a good decade shy of those numbers, the calling up of such famed folks is not self-aggrandizement, it's simply the facts of his life.

Observing Bozzio is akin to scrutinizing the inscrutable; on the surface there's the laid-back Californian, replete with gentle eyes and long stringy hair. Given what he projects, though, through his words and manner of speaking, on the inside there's a man for whom time is at a premium. You can sense his steely mind keeping time, planning his next movement like a person for whom there is no tomorrow. And as many tomorrows as he has left, Terry Bozzio is an individual who from childhood has burned with the need to get the most from today.

Born 1950 in the cold sunshine of San Francisco, six-year-old Terry found his calling beaming in glorious black and white from his family's television set.

"I saw Little Ricky playing the drums on the I Love Lucy show," he recalls. "That was the first time I saw a child playing music for adults, and I wanted to play the drums ever since. It was the same thing with the Mickey Mouse Club and Cubby O'Brien. I think my dad had some Tito Puente albums as well."

Armed with a set of bongos soon after, the budding young skinbeater was well prepared for that defining moment experienced by so many American kids poised to become musicians and music fans -- the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Drum lessons and the rudiments of reading sheet music came soon after, followed by Bozzio's participation in psychedelic garage rock bands throughout his high school years in the late Sixties.

That none of those bands became the next Beatles didn't faze Bozzio one bit, and after high school he began getting serious about his love for the drums, taking instruction from a teacher he credits with instilling in him artistic principles he's still striving for to this day: Chuck Brown, a Berklee graduate who was taught by George L. Stone, a famous snare drummer and percussionist with the Boston Philharmonic.

Like many would-be maestros, Bozzio had put in his time in the high school band, moving to college in Marin where he majored in music. There he studied theory, ear training, and piano for several years, playing in various classical ensembles, orchestras, and chamber groups, all of which he relished his involvement in -- unlike the typical band kids. But not everything was peaches and regalia for the young Bozzio.

Besides free love and the concept of artistic expression, the Sixties also ushered in the horrors of the Vietnam War, and suddenly Bozzio's fortune appeared to take a turn for the worse; he lost his student deferment and it appeared that he would be drafted. Things looked bleak, but at the last minute, fate changed its mind and smiled upon Bozzio; Richard Nixon chose to end the draft before the drummer's number came up. Breathing a sigh of relief, he decided to take a year off and just practice. During that year, he turned pro.

"I got the show Godspell and that thing ran for about 13 months," he remembers. "It was an excellent opportunity to get enough dough to get out of my parents' house, get a car, and turn professional. Being in San Francisco every night, I began jamming and meeting different musicians. In that period before Zappa, I had the most eclectic, wonderful, varied musical experience of my life."

Brecker BrothersNearly every day brought a new experience; session work and commercials, avant-garde jazz with Mark Isham and Art Lande, progressive jazz rock ("fusion") with Patrick O'Hearn and Pete Marnhue, and jamming with jazzmen like Eddie Henderson, Julian Priester, and Woody Shaw. Bozzio says he learned a tremendous amount from many such talented scensters in the early Seventies, one of the most memorable of which was Luis Gasca of the Latin rock band Azteca, featuring ex-members of Santana and Malo (Pete Escovedo, father of Sheila E. and brother of Alejandro, was the main percussionist and one of the leaders of that band).

So the gigs continued, with more combos being formed and Bozzio continuing to meet and work with great and near-great musicians, up to and including Richard Waters, the inventor of the Waterphone, used to good effect in a great many kung fu soundtracks. Then came the Zappa years.

There are many legends surrounding Frank Zappa and his music, not the least of which concern the level of professionalism he demanded from those who performed with him; tales abound of musicians hoping to meet his approval and falling far, far short, or of those who made the cut only to be dismissed when caught smoking a joint by the drug-free bandleader. Bozzio didn't arrive at his audition for Zappa unaware of these tales. He did, however, go in nearly unfamiliar with Zappa's oeuvre.

"I flew myself to L.A. having never heard any of his music," reveals Bozzio. "I bought three of his records three days before I went to the audition and I was sleepless with fear! The audition consisted of the most difficult music I had ever seen spread out all over the stage. Sight reading some of that, memorizing some really difficult, odd-timed classical stuff by ear.

"He had two huge Ludwig Octoplex drum sets set up on stage, and under the gaze of the very imposing Frank Zappa, George Duke, and Tom Fowler, one drummer would set up the kit and acclimate himself to it silently while the other drummer auditioned, and they would just go back and forth dropping like flies.

"I saw 10 guys fall and I went, 'Man, I'm never going to get this gig.' I started asking the local drummers if they heard about a Weather Report audition, because I had heard they were looking for a drummer and the answer was even more frightening; Frank's old drummer Chester had left to become the drummer with Weather Report! So I was even more nervous, but somehow I got through the auditions and he said, 'I want to hear you again after I hear the rest of these guys play,' but none of the other guys wanted to play. So the road manager said, 'That's it. Nobody wants to play after Terry,' and Zappa turned to me and said, 'It looks like you got the gig if you want it.'"

Needless to say, Bozzio learned more about music playing with Frank Zappa than with any of the other legends or near-legends he played with prior to his tenure in the late composer's band.

"I worked with him three years, went on four world tours, played on about 10 albums, and developed as a musician. I was exposed to his genius on so many levels. We did a lot of orchestral stuff that was very challenging, TV shows, playing in big arenas where I learned how to project to people a quarter mile away, how to survive on the road.

"My only regret is that I didn't ask him more about half the stuff he was talking about. I just tried to play cool and act like I knew what he was talking about when I really didn't. He was 10 years older than me and a bona fide genius. I was lucky to be in his presence."

Frank...the man.

(l-r): Terry Bozzio, Patrick O'Hearn, Frank Zappa, Eddie Jobson

Though his last work with Zappa is over a decade gone and the man himself left this plane a few years after, his influence on Bozzio remains profound.

"I'm still trying to get where he was: being a composer, having my own record company."

During a short hiatus from Zappa, Bozzio continued his group-hopping, meeting up with horn virtuosos the Brecker Brothers, touring with them and recording the classic jazz album Heavy Metal Bebop. Soon after, he was offered a record deal of his own, and so, on the first day of rehearsals beginning his fourth year in the Frank Zappa band, the end came as suddenly as it had begun.

"[Zappa] sensed my readiness to move on, I guess, although I wasn't aware of it and wasn't ready to give up my gig," says Bozzio. "He said, 'It's time for you to go and do your own thing,' and like a good father, he booted me out of the nest and made me get up and fly right -- whatever that is."

For many of the musically inclined, the concept of flying right doesn't necessarily include playing with Thin Lizzy, but the newly freed Bozzio recognized Phil Lynott's talent for marrying the songwriting tradition of fellow Irish bards like Van Morrison with the hard rock muscle of Seventies arena rock, so he auditioned.

"It looked good, but they were kind of 'get-drunk-and-fight' types," recalls Bozzio. "I wanted to take my girlfriend on the road and I was more experienced, and I think they were a little wary of my blending with them. They liked my drumming and it looked like I was going to get it, but they decided against it. Plus I was expensive. I wanted a lot of dough and they really didn't have it, so I was just kind of bumming around L.A. when Eddie Jobson said he wanted me to replace [Bill] Bruford in [the band] UK. So I joined UK for a year, made a record with them, and toured the world supporting Jethro Tull. "

As the Seventies drew to a close, Bozzio decided it was finally time to put together his own group. The band, featuring Bozzio's then-wife Dale on vocals, guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, and bassist Patrick O'Hearn (still more Zappa featured players) must've seemed a shock to fans of Zappa, as they played straight-ahead pop rock with a distinct L.A. flavor, but by most people's accounting, Missing Persons, formed in 1980, were late contenders for the city's New Wave crown, their first major label album hitting the racks in 1982.

Missing PersonsWhile the band never received much critical acclaim -- L.A. rock has nearly always been dismissed by music critics, and L.A. New Wave doubly so! -- the band, true to Bozzio's good fortune and talent, scored several chart hits, including "Words," "Destination Unknown," and "Walking In L.A.," all of which hold up as standards among the Eighties retro crowd and all of which were either written or co-written by Bozzio. In 1986, then, after one EP and three full-length albums, the band broke up when the drummer's marriage to the singer went the way of New Wave.

"We had our 15 minutes," says Bozzio, pleased, "which took about five years to get to. We also got a gold record, and I thought we made some interesting music for the time, especially the first album."

Even though he was calling his own tunes at last, it may seem strange that a musician so immersed in his classical and jazz leanings, one with such extensive training in polyrhythms and odd time signatures, should be happy playing simple beats in the pop/rock realm of Missing Persons, but Bozzio will have none of that talk.

"There's a quality thing that cuts across any genre," he asserts, "so whatever you play, there's something inside that makes you want to just play it the best you possibly can -- and that even allows you to not do what you'd really like to do in order to do what's best for that music."

After Missing Persons went absent, it was back to session work and meeting new people. This time around, that meant freelancing with artists as diverse as Duran Duran's ex-axeman Andy Taylor, Robbie Robertson, and even Gary Wright. Meanwhile, Bozzio continued working very seriously on his own solo projects as a singer-songwriter. After a lot of songwriting and some demo deals, however, things didn't pan out on that front. Once again, though, Bozzio's train of thought was derailed by Dame Fortune.

While rehearsing for a drum clinic one day, building his own drum kit in the rehearsal space, a voice came over the intercom instructing Bozzio to pick up line seven. In doing so, he heard the voice of his current wife EV, who worked for Capitol Records. Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck, it turned out, were auditioning drummers in L.A. and couldn't find anybody they liked, so they requested that Bozzio be summoned to see if he could play on a video for Jagger the following day. Bozzio remembers that day too clearly.

"I went out there, played on a Tama hired kit and immediately broke the sticks," laughs Bozzio. "The kit was really awful and I thought, 'This is the worst!' I'm sitting there with broken drum sticks turned around with the sharp part in my hands playing 'Little Red Rooster' and these spotlights were on Jeff Beck and Mick Jagger and they were backlit, and suddenly it came upon me -- the weight of who I was actually in the room with!"

True to form, Bozzio got that gig and did the video for "Throwaway," a song from Jagger's second solo album, Primitive Cool. That wasn't enough for Beck, however. "He said, 'Yeah, yeah, this is great, but I really want to make a record with my own band and I want you to be the drummer,'" beams Bozzio, "so we did the Guitar Shop record, which I co-wrote and co-produced and won a Grammy [for]."

Japanese Compilation
A recent Japanese compilation of live recordings from 1981. Terry Bozzio, bottom right.

There were a few oddball sessions and collaborations after that in the late Eighties/early Nineties, including several albums as part of the fusion outfit Lonely Bears (with Tony Hymas, Hugh Burns, and Tony Coe), and the "spontaneously created" Black Light Syndrome CD (with Tony Levin and Steve Stevens), but then came an event big enough to drive Bozzio out of L.A. and into a new dimension of drumming: the 1996 Loma Prieta earthquake.

"It scared the shit out of me and my wife," Bozzio recounts with a chill. "We'd been in California all our lives and gone through a lot of earthquakes, and this was not just one of them! I thought this was the Big One. There was a lot of destruction to the home we were in. It cracked a chimney, and a 30-foot by seven-foot garden wall fell into the neighbors' [yard]. There was no power for a week -- it was no fun."

There were other concerns in the household as well; the couple's boy was about ready to start school and all their concerned parent friends were telling them that they couldn't send their son to a public school. At the time, Bozzio simply didn't have the dough to put his son in a private school, so Terry and wife EV began the hunt for a new place to live. Austin was far from the couple's first choice.

"[EV] didn't even want to go to Austin 'cause she had driven through Texas and thought it was all flat like Dallas and Houston," says Bozzio with a hint of embarrassment, before gushing about the couple's eventual choice. "As a musician, I can't believe I am living where I am living and my boy is in a good school and we live in a nice town and I can go out and do what I want to do!"

In point of fact, though, Bozzio's frenzied schedule has kept him from going out and meeting the locals.

"I met Will Sexton through a friend of mine in L.A.," he offers, "and I ended up at his house I think on Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving a couple of years back when we first moved here. We always talked about getting together and fooling around and stuff and never did. Then recently, I went out for a nice dinner and went down to Cedar Street and he was playing, and a photographer -- Todd Wolfson, who was playing film cans -- asked me to sit in and I did a couple of songs with him and that was about it."

Bozzio, on rare occasions, has also joined a few acquaintances onstage, including fellow Austinite Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson, but beyond that, typically you'll find him on the road -- out touting his solo drum projects.

To understand what Terry Bozzio does with a drum set, you first have to understand the kit itself. "The drum set is sort of an illegitimate instrument," he explains, "and it's a very young instrument. The inception was about the turn of the century and the formalization was in the Twenties when the big band era happened, so it's expanded from there and we are just now getting around to people evolving to the point where they can accompany themselves. Since the Seventies, we have added more notes, we are able to play more melodic and apply some of these other musical techniques that have been applied to keyboard playing for over 400 years to the drum set."

And what does he do on the road with these ever-evolving toms, snares, and cymbals? Bozzio describes his standard show as basically a solo drum performance that's accompanied by a seminar in the English-speaking countries he visits, and just the performance in non-English-speaking countries.

"That's what I do all over the world to make a living," he smiles. "It's really well-respected in the drumming world and I am grateful, because under the guise of a drum and cymbal commercial, I get complete musical and artistic freedom and a core audience of drummers who understand and appreciate that type of music and come and see me and support me.

"Outside of the drum area, no one really knows about it, because solo drum music is not something that's an easy thing to market -- unless you hear it and you understand the complete musical statement I'm making on the drum with melodies and harmonies and compositions and form and structure and orchestration and all. It doesn't read to everybody. People will probably think about the last time they saw Ginger Baker or anyone else doing a drum solo, and it's not that."

So, a full evening's entertainment based on the solo from "Toad" it's not.

"But, you're probably still asking, 'What is it?,'" injects Bozzio. "It's a complete musical statement on the drum set -- a huge drum set with lots of toms, lots of cymbals, and there's melody, there's harmony, there are dynamics. The drums are tuned to specific pitches, and the cymbals that I designed, although they are nonspecific pitches, are in a graduated pitch series so that there are definable melodies happening everywhere. It's not just 'go out and hit this stuff in rhythmic fashion.' It's like taking a keyboard approach to the drums.

"It's kind of like a piano in accompanying pattern and soloing against the melody, and musically speaking, it's like drawing on classical music, because a lot of it is coming from classical music like Bartok or Stravinsky. On the other hand, it's coming from jazz, because a lot of it is improvisational and spontaneous. There are always areas where I am free to do whatever I want to do, but you can tell that there are sections like at the beginning and the end that repeat note for note recapitulations. So there is form and structure; one foot in jazz, one foot in classical, and then a lot of pieces are inspired by ethnic music like African, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Asian."

In the interest of recording his concepts of modern drumming, over the course of four days(!) last December, Bozzio recorded two solo albums here in Austin. The first, Drawing the Circle, is a one-man parade of Bozzism, a staggering collection of lengthy compositions he proudly touts as being first-take, no-overdub affairs, and the second, Chamber Works, presents a step towards his Zappa-goal of composing and owning his own record company; it's a suite of pieces for drum set with woodwind and strings, followed by a piece accompanied by, as the title implies, a chamber orchestra. No, you won't find these discs in your local Wal-Mart, but Bozzio has taken in recent months to keeping them available in local record stores like Waterloo, in addition with keeping a case or two with him on the road.

Bozzio, Beck and Hymas.
(l-r): Bozzio, Jeff Beck, Tony Hymas.

If his love for the life of a drummer isn't obvious from his dedication to the instrument, Bozzio makes no secret that he considers himself blessed, both by the presence of the greats he's worked with and in the freedom he currently enjoys.

"For the last 10 years I've survived following my heart and I make a living doing that," he says, still somewhat incredulous. "That's a miracle to me and I know it's some sort of compass as to which way I should be going."

He hasn't followed that compass correctly at every turn, as witnessed by a recent gig touring as drummer for the reunited Knack, which fell apart almost as soon as it began, but for Bozzio, that's simply another life lesson.

"You know, people always say turn down this guy and that guy or there's these big money gigs," he shrugs, "but a lot of time the price you pay to do these money gigs and the money they actually pay you as sidemen is just not worth what you have to put up with musically and on a whole other level psychologically. I'd just rather go along and do my own thing. I really didn't think it would go anywhere, but here I am. I support myself and travel all over the world with total artistic freedom playing solo drums. Who would have thunk it?"

So what are words for? Well, as Terry Bozzio certainly knows, they come in awfully handy, especially when you're attempting to describe a new and innovative style of music, performed on that most ancient/modern of instruments, the drum. And if you still don't feel that you understand fully what the drums are for, well, you'll have to wait until Terry Bozzio returns from his latest jaunt and schedules a solo concert in Austin to hear the full answer to that.

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