What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: The Definitive Bill Rieflin Interview
If there was ever any doubt that Bill Rieflin is the percussionist god of the Universe, now is the time to get on your knees and believe it. At age 38, Rieflin’s career is perhaps one of the most prolific and colorful of any musician currently working. Having spent eight years as Ministry’s drummer, he’s also performed, produced and collaborated with some of industrial and experimental music’s most creative and ground-breaking artists: KMFDM, Pigface, Ruby, Peter Murphy, and Nine Inch Nails, to name but a few. In June, Rieflin released his first solo record, Birth of a Giant , a most unusual pop record featuring significant contributions by avant garde rock guitar legend, Robert Fripp. The only way to get the full picture of Bill Rieflin’s amazing career and uniquely charming personality is to go back to the beginning. And no one could tell the story quite the way Rieflin tells it himself, so I’ll let him do most of the talking.
“I was born in Seattle, or as I always say I was bread-and-buttered here. My first instrument was the ‘pie-annie,’ and I think I started playing when I was seven. Then, somewhere in 1970, I found the G chord on a guitar; I put my finger on the third fret of the high string and strummed it and I said, ‘Hey look, wow! I can play guitar!’ Later that year, I got some drums for Christmas. I think the drums happened because it was the only instrument left in the neighborhood band, so I had to play drums. I was 10 or 11, maybe. I eventually got rid of those damn things and sold them to another neighbor kid [because] I decided I was going to be a guitar player. I was playing guitar until I was asked to come and fill in for a drummer who wasn’t going to make it in some other local band. I hadn’t played for a couple years and warned them of that. But, apparently, I was better than their other guy, and they asked me to stay (laughs), so I did. That group was called the Telepaths. The Telepaths paved the way for the Blackouts and the Blackouts eventually — minus one member — went to go work with [Al] Jourgenson in Ministry. Paul [Barker] was the last of many bass players; Paul joined in 1981. He was living in Germany at the time, and his brother, Roland, who was an original Blackout, wrote to him and said ‘Come to Seattle! Be in our band!’ And he did. The rest is, uh, the rest.”
What is it about your approach to percussion that inspires so many different artists, from Chris Cornell to Peter Murphy to Trent Reznor, to seek you out as a participant on their records?
Bill Rieflin : That’s a hard question to answer. I must say that I can only imagine that they’re deluded: that they imagine that I can do something interesting. I think a better question to ask is “Why do they want me to come and work on their records?,” because a lot of people want me to work with them NOT specifically because of my drumming. I’m going to go into a little parenthetical story here. I once went on a long skiing weekend — not downhill but cross-country — and there were a bunch of people there that I didn’t know. Somebody had the bright idea [that a good] way of introducing ourselves was to tell who we are, what our name is, and then describe what it is that is most bogus about our work.
When it came to my turn, what I said was, “What is most bogus about my work is that I get credit for doing things I DON’T do and I don’t get credit for doing things that I DO do” [laughs]. How that reflects upon my drumming, I think, is a rather confusing issue. For instance, I think we all have to go back and look at how Ministry operated, which is where I expect people would primarily know my name from. A lot of how Ministry worked was that everybody kind of did everything. There were songs on which I didn’t drum at all, and songs on which I did some drumming and programming, songs on which I didn’t play drums but played keyboards or guitar. There were songs where Paul Barker did all the programming and the drums and I would play his parts (live), because they sounded so good. It was always a pushing, pulling, big fat vat of taffy, and there wasn’t any preciousness, in the sense that ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘it’s my territory.’ The basic rule of thumb was, really, if you had the right idea, or a good idea, and you could do it, or con somebody else into doing it, well that’s what survived at the end of the day.
So to get back to the question, “Why do people ask me to work on their records?” I have no idea. But when they do work with me, usually what they get, they like [laughs]. I don’t think you can ask that question in general; I think you can only ask that question in terms of specifics. In terms of Peter Murphy, I think I was invited along because Sascha recommended me and because Peter liked me. We only met once before we started recording, and if he didn’t like me then I wouldn’t have done the record.
What was your impetus for leaving Ministry?
Oh dear, I’ve never actually talked about this in the press. Let’s say that there was no good reason for me to continue on. How’s that for an answer?
It’s a great, concise answer.
Oh! Oh, I forgot one of my really glib answers! I’m going to give you multiple choice here. If we go back in time and you ask me “Why did you leave Ministry?” My other answer is “I never was in Ministry.” Now, how do I come to that conclusion? Well, I think that conclusion is based on observable facts. If you observe the records, all of the records, I am always credited as an “other” musician, and Ministry is Paul and Al. So, I was never in Ministry, therefore I never left the band.
I like that answer. My next question is one you’re probably being asked a lot right now. I’m talking about your participation in the most anticipated album of the century, probably, the new Nine Inch Nails album.
Oh yeah, I’ve heard about it.
How did you get involved with Mr. Reznor?
He believed I was a good drummer, and he mistakenly acted upon that assumption. It was during the making of Birth of a Giant , actually. He called up and wanted to have me come and play in something absurd like a week’s notice. I said “Well, yeah, I’d love to, of course. But I haven’t been playing, I’m not up to snuff. I can’t guarantee that anything I do is going to be any good.” And he said, “Well, I doubt it but okay.” I think he believed I was being humble but the fact of the matter is, it was true. It wasn’t really until the third day that I felt that what I was doing was of any value. My arms were really, really sore by the third day, but it was really fun. It was good work, it was hard work, I like working hard.
Let’s talk about KMFDM for awhile, shall we? How did you meet Sascha?
That started in 1989, when KMFDM were on tour with Ministry. They supported us for The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste tour. That tour was a couple of months long, and was their first introduction to the U.S., and our first introduction to them. Sascha later moved to Seattle, and I think it was really after that where we started to work together more.
That was also the tour from which Pigface was born, is it not?
It was, in fact.
What are your memories of having been involved in the earliest incarnations of Pigface?
My memories — good choice of words — because it’s not really living within the present moment. I don’t think much about Pigface. Pigface was in a way — was and definitely is — Martin (Atkin)’s creation. He liked the idea of two drummers together, doing something interesting with that. He liked the idea of doing something that was radically out of control and messy, which is something I can agree to up and to a point. For me, my aesthetic of messy is Birth of a Giant .
So, Martin and I asked Steve Albini if he wanted to go into the studio with us and just basically use all the folks that were on the tour, have them come in and do something very spontaneously. Which we did, and the record Gub came out of it. To its credit, there’s a few interesting things on that record. There’s a few real pieces of crap. We went on tour after that. That’s kind of all that was in it for me.
What’s the difference in the way you approach playing an electronic kit versus an acoustic kit?
Funny you should ask, because I’ve just recently been thinking a lot about playing electronic drums again. I think any reasonable person will approach them differently. To apply a drumming approach to an electronic instrument is gonna get you nothing but a really boring result, in the same way that synthesizers that emulate acoustic instruments, string sections and all that, primarily [are] boring because it’s merely reproducing what’s been done already and it doesn’t utilize what is unique or interesting about that instrument.
So, my approach is different. I suppose you can say it’s less historical. I notice sometimes that when I sit behind a drum kit, I’m sitting there as a drummer who’s been playing now for far too many years than I care to think about and a lot of what I’ve brought to drums comes from years of playing and listening music. With electronic drums, there’s a whole world of possibilities that open up, tonally and in terms of how they’re used in the music. I think for the creatively stunted there’s an opportunity to really open the doors of your imagination.
Would you like to speak at all about the passing of William Tucker?
Well, you know, what can you say? It’s a fucking shame. What would bring him to do that is really a point of speculation. But, you know, William [lowering his voice] was really full of self-loathing in a lot of ways. William, I mean, I would always sort of half jokingly and half truly [sic] say that he was my nemesis. He was a real pain in the ass sometimes, but, you know, who cares? I’m sure I’m a pain in the ass to somebody. But I liked William very much. I worked with him last on the Chainsuck record and I wouldn’t have done that if I really thought he was a pain in the ass. We would tease ourselves about it. We had this kind of role-playing game that we would fall into where he would approach me in a certain way and I would approach him in a certain way, making fun of each other. That was one aspect of how we related which was kind of fun. You know, shit, it’s really too bad. There’s not much more to be said.
Thanks for that. So anyway, is Birth of a Giant the first time you’ve sung on a record?
Well, first featured on-record singing performance. I did back up vocals on a couple of Ministry things.
Your vocals sound like David Sylvian from some of the later Japan records. That’s a compliment.
Someone else has said that to me. The irony is that I am not in the slightest influenced by David Sylvian. Which is not to say that I don’t like him, but I don’t really listen to his records. (Chris) Connelly was going to be doing the vocals on the record, and then that fucking Scottish rat bastard pulled out on me, essentially forcing me to do it. When I chose the vocal performances for the record, I tried to select the ones that were the least stylized possible. I wanted actually to make them sound as plain as I could.
There’s really no need for liner notes to feel Robert Fripp all over Birth of a Giant .
Yeah, he played all over the damn thing!
Was it ever a bit daunting to work with a guy like Fripp? He’s such a legendary perfectionist.
Well, there’s another aspect of Robert that’s, I suppose, an adventurer: Someone who wants to dive right in with a real “sink or swim” attitude. He likes the challenge of being able to respond in the moment. That means that when it’s time to play, plug him in, roll the tape, let him go. Most all the stuff on the record happened that way. The song called “Spy Thriller,” I think those were the only takes he did. The first take was that high guitar part. The second take was the other guitar part, and that was it. Then he did some solo stuff, which I used part of. And it was like “Well, that works.” “Okay good. NEXT!”
You’ve said that you had in mind to make an experimental sounding record, which I think you’ve achieved. What it reminds me of is an era in time when progressive rock became post-punk art rock in the early ’80s. So it’s got a fresh-yet-familiar sound. The question buried in there is, what are your thoughts on that?
I see Birth of a Giant in a lot of respects as a very reactionary record. It’s reactionary to what I have been hearing recently and what I don’t like. In one way, it was an attempt to make a record kind of like something I’d like to hear, but not exactly. I actually thought I was making a pop record. Structurally, it’s a very simple record, you know. I thought, well, I’m just making a weird pop record. Apparently, (laughing) no one else agrees with me. I didn’t want to make a rock record, although it came out probably more rock-sounding than I expected it might have when I started out. That might simply have to do with the guitars. I think starting the record with the song “Open Mouth” — it’s a very rock song, and in one way, it frames the record in a way that gives it that rock flavor. But if I’d sequenced [the songs] differently, I think people would have a different opinion. The only problem was that song didn’t fit anywhere else.
You know what “Open Mouth” reminds me of? This is digging pretty far back to the ’70s, but it sounds like a song off of one of Tommy Bolin’s solo records. “Open Mouth” is like a song off Teaser , I can’t recall the name, but as soon as I heard it, I had a total flash back.
You know where that song actually comes from? That song came to me in a dream. The lyrics were different and I couldn’t imagine myself singing the lyrics that were actually in the dream, so I had to change it a bit. [The dream] was actually that I’d gone and I’d bought a record, and I brought it home and played it. That was the song on the record [laughs]. So I had to write some of it, but a lot of it I just transcribed from what I remembered as the dream. It’s easier that way, I don’t have to do the work, I just transcribe ideas that come to me. Most of my best ideas for this record came to me either while doing the dishes or while driving.
But I’ve never thought of it as being a progressive record, and I would never use that [word], if only because it generally has a negative bias with those who hear the word. So, it’s an experimental record to the degree that, when I started it, I didn’t know where it was going to wind up. My sensibility really is pop music. I grew up on the Beatles and that formed a lot of my sensibilities. My music education started very early. For instance, on the topic of the Beatles, I remember when the White Album came out.
Well, after all the projects and records that you been involved in and on and around… How does it feel to finally do your own thing?
It was a lot of fucking work [laughs]. You know, if there’s anything that really came clear to me, it’s that within the idea of putting out a record there’s so many steps along the way, which having been completed, still don’t complete the cycle of the record. For instance, there’s the writing phase; at some point you may or may not be finished with the writing before you go into the studio. Then you go into the studio and at a certain point the recording is finished. The next step is you have to mix it…etc. So there’s all these steps along the way: writing, recording, editing, sequencing, mastering… [with] each step there is a completion. My propensities are really not to celebrate when I’m done, but rather I’m always looking ahead to what the hell else needs to be done [laughs].
To ask kind of a big picture question, spanning the globe, looking at your entire career, what are your thoughts on being in the middle of the whole Wax Trax/Ministry/Chicago Industrial scene?
Am I? I didn’t know I was?
I think you were at one time, but now of course you’re not in Chicago, and you’re not in Ministry — of course you never were…
So let’s put you in the position of drummer percussionist godhead of that whole deal.
I have no idea what to say. If that’s how I’m thought of, then fine, what can I do about it? I will say, on one hand, it does to a degree relate to what we were talking about earlier, concerning what is bogus about what I do. What people imagine I do may not actually be what I do. Consequently, the converse may also be true. [Pause, sighs] I don’t know what to say. Someone recently asked me to play on a record of theirs and it was very “of that genre,” shall we say — I’m trying to be as diplomatic as possible. And I wasn’t interested in it because, firstly, I don’t like genre music. [Just] because I was in a group that played music that resulted in a certain style doesn’t mean I actually like anything else of that style. To me, I like unique expressions of musical ideas and the fact that they fall within a certain style is irrelevant. So, if I’ve been on records that were called industrial music, that doesn’t guarantee that I actually like industrial music, it only guarantees that I played on those records. I might not even like those records, or I might like them, but it doesn’t mean that I like anything else like it.
I follow you.
It’s that specific idea or expression that I find interesting. A few people, I think, have been put off by Birth of a Giant because it doesn’t really sound like [what I’ve done before]. The response to that is why would I want to make a record that sounded like that? First of all, I’ve already made way too many. Personally, I think it’s over anyway; I’m not interested in making music that sounds like that. It’s something I did up to ten years ago. Ten years is a really long time, I mean, my god, a lot can happen and a lot has happened. You know, I was there and experienced it while it was happening. A lot of people pick up on it maybe a couple years after it’s gone; to them it’s new and it’s interesting and exciting. To me it might not be, just because I’ve lived and I’ve been through it. People change, and now I’m interested in other things. That’s a really kind of long-winded answer isn’t it?
It’s an excellent answer. Thank you, Professor Rieflin.