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Bill Rieflin interview March 15, 2000 by telephone

Maybe some of you know who Bill Rieflin is, but donít know his name.  He played drums for Ministry & for Swans & has done a lot of other stuff too.  Recently he put out his first solo record, Birth of a Giant, & it has guests like Robert Fripp on it.

QRD – I read a recent interview with you, so I guess you wonít tell me why you decided to do a solo record at this point in your career; but do you plan to do another one & if so, who would you like to involve as your collaborators?

Bill – well, thereís no secret as to why I made a record.  The answer is not really very interesting.  Itís just that there was music coming out, so I worked on it & at the end, it was a completed body of work.  So I put it out as a record.  Itís kind of that simple.  Regarding who I am currently involved with, thereíre actually three records in various stages of planning &/or dress at this point.  Iím at the tail end of editing a record by a group called Land that I play with here in town.  They are an instrumental, somewhat improvisational group thatís really been Jeff Greinkeís thing for years.  Iím part of this incarnation.  Thereís another group -- that I just did some recording with two days ago called The Minus Five. It is spearheaded by a guy named Scott McCaughey.  Scottís a local hero.  He has another group called Young Fresh Fellows, & for the last half of the nineties heís been one of the live guitarists for REM.  He has this side project called The Minus Five & thereíre a lot of guys from around town that play on the records.  Peter Buck usually plays on them; Ken Stringfellow from The Posies, Chris Ballew from Presidents of the United States of America – currently of Subset (with Sir Mix-A-Lot).  So Iím playing with them & weíve done a few gigs & we did some recording the other day.  We recorded nine basics in nine hours.

QRD – So youíre on percussion I assume?

Bill – Yeah, playing drums.  Itís a straight-ahead pop-rock group.  Everybody plays live, we record it & there you go.  The next record Iím doing after that is something with Chris Connelly who has worked with Ministry, RevCo, & all that.  Heís made four or five solo records that I donít know if youíve heard, but theyíre quite worth listening to.  He & I have an ongoing writing project & we now have enough material to start a record.  So I hope that will be done by the end of the year.  Heís getting quite busy right now.  So those are three things Iím involved with.  Additionally, Iím writing some material for what I suppose will become the next Rieflin record.  Who will be on it?  I donít know.  I was talking with Robert Fripp about a week ago & mentioned I was doing some things.  I think his ears pricked up, so weíll see.

QRD – Over the course of how long were you writing the songs for Birth of a Giant?

Bill – Most of those songs came together once I realized I was making a record.  A few of them had been kicking around for a little while.  The song called ďOpen MouthĒ actually appeared in a dream some time ago; but I never knew quite what to do with it, so this was a nice place for it.  So most of the stuff came while I was working.  There was a pre-production period of approximately five moths just tinkering around & playing with sounds at home & writing.  Weíll say within that period of time, but there are a few  exceptions.

QRD – Would you rather be known as a drummer or a bass player or a producer or an engineer or a songwriter?

Bill – Well, I suppose I would like to be thought of as somebody with good ears & good ideas.  Howís that?  Even if itís not true. Maybe thatís who Iíd like to be, the person who has good ideas & good ears.

QRD – So not necessarily as a performer versus an engineer or anything like that?

Bill – Well, there are many facets to what I do.  Thereís the performing side of things: my experience as a performer is primarily as a drummer – I have also performed as a guitarist, keyboardist – but primarily as a drummer.  My recording work, I suppose, you could also say is primarily as a drummer, but not much more than half, I would guess.  So letís just say I would like to be known as a musician.

QRD – So as a musician, not an engineer.

Bill – Iím not an engineer.  Something comes to mind that Steve Albini said, that most engineers are just glorified button pushers.  Iím not even a glorified button pusher.  I can just plug a few things together & make it work, but a real engineer knows what they are doing & really understands how sound works & how itís put together & how frequencies are modulated, assembled, etc.  You know, how to make a good sounding record.  Itís a real skill.  I donít think itís something that most people can do – just wake up & put a bunch of gear in their room & make a good sounding record.  You have to know how to use the stuff.  Having made enough records on my own, I understand the value of a good engineer.

QRD – You really donít consider yourself an engineer?

Bill – Itís not that I donít consider myself one; I simply am not one.  I am not an engineer.

QRD – Youíve acted as engineer on quite a few records havenít you?

Bill – Well, yeah, Iíve pushed a lot of buttons, like I say.

QRD – So your not an engineer, just some guy that presses record & twists the knobs a little bit?

Bill – Yeah, something like that.  Given the opportunity, I hire a real engineer.  Plus itís easier that way.  Iím becoming a firm believer in distribution of labor.  So engineers do the job of an engineer.  Musicians do the job of musicians.  Producers do the job of producers.  If those roles are defined well, then I think youíre going to have a well oiled machine.  Did you hear the record Drainland?

QRD – Yeah, thatís one of my favorite records.

Bill – Itís an excellent record, but that was a very hard record to make because I was engineering & recording & playing on it & acting as producer & this & that.  It was hard; itís much easier not to have to think about all that stuff.  If Iím just focusing on being a musician, then thatís where my energy & attention go & I can really keep it there.  Otherwise it becomes too diffused, at least for me.  I suppose some people are good at it, but I personally donít want to work that way.  Itís too hard.  Iíd rather just do one thing & focus on that.

QRD – Do you prefer working with more famous or less well-known acts?

Bill – I prefer working with talented people with good ideas & good songs who are fun to work with.

QRD – Whatís your favorite recording trick that youíve learned?

Bill – Well, itís quite a trick to get it right the first time.

QRD – Whatís your favorite Swansí song?

Bill – Gosh, the first thing that comes to mind is a song called ďBetter Than YouĒ which was really the first song I heard that really excited me & made me think, ďGod, I really want to play with these guys.Ē  It was so good, so exciting; I love that piece.

QRD – What do you think is the most productive thing a person can do with their time?

Bill – My first answer was going to be something snide like ďkeep it to yourself,Ē but I suppose ďpay attentionĒ is a good one.  But far be it from me to tell anyone what to do with their lives.  I barely manage my own.

QRD – Who would you like to work with that you havenít so far?

Bill – Anybody whoís on that list or is that person that I described earlier, thatís who I want to work with.  Working with famous people or people whose records I knowÖ.  Sometimes I think I donít want to meet this guy.  I love these records & I love this music & I donít want what I come to see this person as being to get in the way of that.

QRD – The mystique to go away?

Bill – Itís not even mystique so much.  What happens when you work with your favorite artist & you find out heís just a prick like everyone else in the world?  Thereís nothing special about this person; they may just have a knack for writing good songs, but theyíre really just a bastard.  Iíd rather not have that experience.  I donít want to work with someone just because of their popularity or fame.  I want to work with someone because I think what they are doing is really exciting & worthwhile.

QRD – But thereís no one in particularÖ.

Bill – There are records I like to listen to by people who I think are really exciting, but those people are in groups & thereís no place for me there.  For instance, The Bad Seeds. That would be great; but itís like saying, ďWell, Iíd like to join The Beatles.Ē  You canít.  You canít because The Beatles are those four guys & once you get in there, itís going to fuck things up.  These guys are all fine without me.  They donít need me to make good records.

QRD – Do you think the lowering prices of CD production that has allowed so many self-released CDs has hurt or helped the average musician?

Bill – Well, itís a complicated question, because putting out CDs, I think, has nothing to do with being a musician.  Working with music & working with an instrument & working with songs & ideas, those have to do with being a musician.  Putting out CDs is a completely different thing – itís a world of business.  You make a recording & you contact the pressing plant & you have to get artwork together & master your record & once you get the CDs you have to decide, ďWell what am I gonna do with these? & how am I gonna sell them?Ē  It goes on & on.  So it can be a hindrance to musicians in that it takes up all their time.  I speak from experience on that.  Is it good for music to have the possibility of CDs availableÖ?  I donít know, Iím kind of an elitist about this.  I sometimes think there are just too damn many of them.  But, if thereís an audience for it, then fine.  If thereís an audience for it, then people will buy them & theyíll buy them because they want them.  You canít argue with that, even if the audience is five people or twenty people or twenty thousand people.  Put out all the records you want, see if I care.

QRD – What instrument would you like to see people use more or less in music?

Bill – Reverb.

QRD – So reverb more or less?

Bill – Less, I hate bad reverb.  For years thereíd been an idea that the seventies were really the worst decade for music, but Iíve recently come to the conclusion that itís the eighties that really were the worst.  I think reverb has a lot to do with that.  People discovered reverb & started using it as an effect in the most horrible ways.  Itís horrific.

QRD – Just on vocals or on everything?

Bill – Everywhere.

QRD – Like the big guitar soundÖ?

Bill – Everything.  Just find a record that was made in the eighties & youíre going to hear bad room-type sounds on the drums, vocals, guitars, the whole works.  It positively smells.

QRD – What do you think is the best/worst current trend in music?

Bill – The current trend, which is a revisiting of an old trend, is to find someone attractive & young & make them a star.  That has nothing to do with music, but rather, it fuels the music industry.  Thatís not quite my cup of tea.  I donít rush out to buy the new Brittany Spears record or N-Sync or all that stuff.  There are a lot of worst trends; I donít know what the best trend is.  As far as I can see there isnít a best trend.  Iím glad to see that finally people are learning how to master & re-master old records.  Fifteen years down the road CDs are finally starting to sound good.  Thatís a nice thing.

QRD – What do you think of the importance of television to modern American society?

Bill – I donít know how important television is to people & I donít know how people use television.  Iím a television watcher, & the way I generally like to watch television is to tape a show that I want to see & then watch it later at my convenience.  That accomplishes two things: I can watch it when I have the time, & I get to zip through television commercials.  I think if everybody watched television in that way, the face of advertising in this country would change.  Something as simple as that would make a radical dent in the way Madison Avenue approaches its victims, I think.

QRD – What time period would you most like to live in?

Bill – Gosh.  Well, Iím not interested in the past, history wise, so I would say Iíd like to live in the future just to see what was going on.  Iíd probably want to be at least a couple of hundred years in the future.

QRD – What stereotypical trait of musicians do you wish people didnít associate with you?

Bill – You know, rock music is really mainstream.  I mean that in the worst way possible.  Everything about it is completely codified.  Itís completely acceptable.  It is a system.  Thereís a rulebook.  You go to the store & you say I want to be a rock musician so Iíll play such & such & behave such & such.  I think the incredible arrogance & egotism of musicians is utterly adolescent & verges on childish & I think it just has no place in the world.  Oh, were we talking about me?

QRD – At what age do you think someone should become a realist?

Bill – Well, define realist.

QRD – Someone that bases things on most likely possible outcomes instead of most wanted possible outcomes.  Focusing on the most likely results of a situation instead of the most desirable.

Bill – Isnít it possible to focus on both?  You can look at a situation & guess there is a likely outcome, but why would that affect your desired outcome?  Are you thinking that focusing on likely outcomes supplants the idea of desired outcomes?  That you just sort of give up wishing or hoping or desiring for something better than what you figure will happen?

QRD – Thereís an issue that there are people who when they are young want to be a rock star & they continue to make music as more than a hobby in their thirties while working another job, but they still think of it as a potential money making career.

Bill – Oh, well, thatís probably delusional.  Thatís just not assessing the reality of the situation.  Iím trying to remember a quote from Winston Churchill which was something like ďYoung people should be anarchists & older people should be conservatives.Ē  Thatís not really the right quote & doesnít exactly capture the spirit of the idea, but I think one of the things that happens in youth is there are no limits or boundaries.  As a person gets older so, generally, their view of the world changes.  Now, a lot of those changes are cultural & donít necessarily reflect reality as a whole of course.  Certain cultures, I think our culture, tend to view getting older as becoming more limited & settling down & narrowing your focus.  That doesnít necessarily have to happen that way.

QRD – Anything else youíd like to share or anything?

Bill – Dear god, havenít I said enough?