For more than four decades, Terry Bozzio has been regarded as one of the premier “go-to guys” for serious musicians looking for a drummer who is able to adapt to any style or genre. From his early days playing jazz in San Francisco, to his legendary years with Frank Zappa, and his involvement with Missing Persons and even heavier acts like Fantômas and Korn, Bozzio has consistently evolved and remained a powerhouse in the drum scene.
While he still delves into projects with bigger name acts, Bozzio has also been focusing on smaller drumming-based shows with his friends, including percussionist Tom Shelley, who will be joining Bozzio for an intimate performance at St. Joseph Marello Hall in Pittston on Monday. The Weekender recently chatted with Bozzio about some finer points of his career, his perspective on current music, and his ongoing East Coast tour.
The Weekender: Being with Frank Zappa during one of his most productive periods launched you into the national scene. How did you get involved with him?
Terry Bozzio: I had to audition. I was playing with Eddie Henderson out in San Francisco, and he used George Duke on his record. George happened to ask Eddie if he knew any good drummers around San Francisco because Frank had auditioned some around Los Angeles for a couple of weeks. I called George and he told me what it was about, and he told me to go down and give it a shot… Within a few minutes, Frank was just, “Nope, sorry. Next. You can’t read, or you can’t do this.” It was the most difficult music I’ve ever seen laid out on the stage. I went up there, did my best, but I really didn’t think I would get it… He said, “I really want to hear you again after I hear the rest of these guys.” He turns to the rest of the drummers, and they’re all shaking their heads. The road manager turns back to Frank and says, “That’s it, Frank. Nobody else wants to audition after Terry.” Zappa turned to me and said, “Looks like you got the gig if you want it.”
W: How was the experience working with Frank?
TB: It was a pretty amazing experience; it was like marine boot camp for musicians. We worked really hard, and Frank was an incredible genius: really smart and a great musician on many levels. He had several talents he could have made a career out of – just with comedy. He was really a genius. In terms of just being a great guitarist, he was fantastic. He was a classical composer and a rock star and a band leader and arranger.
W: One of the things you’re most associated with Zappa is the nightmare, “The Black Page.” What was your reaction when Frank first presented it to you?
TB: Frank walked into rehearsal one day and said, “What do you think about this, Bozzio?” I was like, “Wow, I’m impressed.” I just picked away at it for about 20 minutes a day before rehearsals. After about a week, I was able to play it for him. So he took it back and wrote the melody and the chord changes for it. After that, we began playing it as a band. I was the first one to play it and record it, and he said that’s his favorite version. It’s a big notch in my gun, because otherwise I would have been a footnote in the life of Frank Zappa.
W: Has it become easier for you to do live nowadays?
TB: It’s hard, period. It’s kind of like that level of difficulty that doesn’t get any more difficult; there’s just more of it. I would say “Moe ‘n Herb’s Vacation” is equally as difficult as “The Black Page” and many of the other pieces Frank wrote, but they’re pages long… When you play a piece of music everyday – whether it’s improvised or pre-composed – you always want to make it better than the last time you played it. “The Black Page” has many places where you can have pitfalls. Even though I’ve got it memorized and still continue to play it from time to time, I didn’t play it for about 30 years until I started to play with Chad (Wackerman) again after Frank had died, and we decided to play it as a duet. It was hell. Just to look at it and go, “Oh crap, how does this go again?” was tough. Now that I’ve got it, I don’t ever want to lose it again.
W: A few years ago, you were involved with two surprising outfits: Korn and Fantômas. What do you think about some of the other current bands and drummers?
TB: There’s a lot of great drummers; I can’t even begin to name all of them. In terms of the music they play with the bands that get them notoriety, I really don’t see, to me, much exciting stuff that’s happening. The kind of music I really like, I have to dig out and find; I’m very picky… Although I can name you 50 great drummers who are out there today, and you would probably know all their names – it’s obvious they’re great. Not many of them play music I really like to hear. I’m an old guy and I’m jaded. [Laughs]
W: For your current tour, are these shows considered drum clinics?
TB: In a way. You can call them that; I really don’t care. Tom does his bit where he plays with some tapes and stuff and some tunes. He’s got a whole laser show and black lights going on, and the younger kids love that. He also does a little drum circle where he hands out percussion instruments and everyone gets a chance to play and have some fun. Then I come on and do my thing, and it’s a solo performance no matter what, whether it’s in a music store or a nice theater. I just close my eyes and do my compositions, or improvise in a compositional manner.
After that, Tom and I play together, and he just happens to play in a way where I really like it; he has all kinds of toys. Coming from Miles Davis and Weather Report, to a novice you might consider it extreme background noise, but to me it’s like these colors of percussion that I don’t have on my kit. I really like hearing that stuff when I’m playing. We have a good pairing, and we have a lot of fun. If kids learn, great; if they don’t, too bad. [Laughs]
W: How would you describe the overall feel of these shows for people who come and see you?
TB: It will be fun, educational, and mind-blowing for everyone in the audience. It will be something like they’ve never seen before. Musical solo drumming from me, some amazing percussion from Tom, and some drum circles for the kids. You’re going to learn something, too – I’ll explain some of my crazy techniques from my advanced rhythmic concepts to them. For anyone who’s interested in drums or music, it would be beneficial for them to experience this.